I’ve worried in the recent past that Democrats will fail to pick their fights carefully on Bush administration appointments, and just submerge their principled objections in a white noise of white-hot rage. But Bush sure seems inclined to pick our fights for us, as evidenced by the, shall we say, rather provocative choice of John Bolton for U.N. ambassador. Is there a single constructive impulse in administration foreign policy that Bolton hasn’t mocked or rejected in the past? Hard to think of one. U.N. reform? Bolton seems to think the organization is inherently an affront to U.S. power. Collective action to stop genocide? Bolton has opposed any U.N. role in “civil conflicts,” up to and including genocide, and as the country’s best-known critic of U.S. cooperation with the International Criminal Court, he’s certainly not in a good position to propose any immediate effort to bring the Darfur murderers to justice. Engagement with China to bring that country more fully into the community of rules-observing nations? As a former hired hand of the Taiwanese government, and an outspoken proponent of formal Taiwanese independence, Bolton isn’t likely to get onto drinking-buddy terms with Beijing’s representatives at the U.N. And then there’s the really big issue on which Bolton has had formal responsibility in his current gig at the State Department: trafficking in nuclear materials. It’s no big secret that the administration until recently treated this rather urgent threat to our lives and limbs as a second- or third-order problem, on the bizarre theory that terrorists are too frightened of George W. Bush to consider setting off a nuke in one of our cities. The current Proliferation Security Initiative that Bolton has directed is a lot better than nothing, but typically, Bolton has pushed it in the direction of ad hoc, U.S.-led action to interdict and inspect suspect cargo, rather than the full-fledged, top-priority international effort to prevent “leakage” of nuclear materials that we need. Aside from his foreign policy views, Bolton is also a stone partisan warrior. I did a couple of radio shows with him back during the madness of the 2000 election cycle, and found him to be genial and cerebral until the mikes went live; at that point, he was indistinguishable from Tom DeLay. I’ll never forget turning on the tube during one of those Florida court hearings on the presidential vote and seeing Bolton sitting there in the front row of the phalanx of GOP lawyers, hour after hour. Since I don’t think the Bush legal team was in need of foreign policy advice, it was clearly an act of hyper-partisan solidarity. (According to this morning’s Post, Bolton even got into the chad-counting act at one of the county-level election boards). Soon we will begin to hear suggestions that Bolton’s appointment may be one of those Nixon-to-China things: you know, let’s go out and find the most abrasive unilateralist in the administration to patch up our relations with the rest of the world. This only makes sense if the Bushies are afraid a more constructive attitude towards the U.N. and the world in general will make them vulnerable to criticism from the almightly Conservative Base. But if this is what’s really going on, then Bolton better make it pretty damn clear during his confirmation hearings. He’s sort of the Robert Bork of foreign policy nominees: a guy with enough material in his public record to script two or three days of tough Democratic questioning. If he expects any Democratic votes at all, he’d better start wolfing down a lot of crow. Otherwise, this is just another in-yer-face appointment that begs for a fight.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
I ran across a story on faulty focus group memories of Trump, and I wrote about the implications at New York.
As an unpopular president facing a sour electorate, Joe Biden really needs to make 2024 a comparative election rather than a straight referendum on his presidency. Luckily for him, his likely general-election opponent, Donald Trump, is equally unpopular for reasons that are quite vivid. He’s as well known as Biden, and he works very hard to reinforce the traits that might make an undecided voter (even one unhappy with Biden) reluctant to put him back in the White House. So half of Biden’s work in drawing contrasts is done for him, and part of the other half is made easy for him by Trump’s strongest supporters, the “deplorables” (to use the Hillary Clinton term that has become a MAGA badge of honor) who enjoy shocking the world by advertising their hero’s most questionable characteristics.
It is becoming apparent, however, that Trump’s potential coalition is being augmented by low-information voters with a hazy understanding of the Trumpier features of the 45th president’s record, character, and agenda. By that I do not mean the non-college-educated voters who make up so large a part of the Trump base. Many if not most of them are pretty educated about their candidate. But there’s evidence that disengaged and/or deeply alienated folks who may nonetheless vote in a presidential election (if not any others) don’t know as much about Trump as you might assume, as the New York Times’ Patrick Healey has observed:
“Our latest Times Opinion focus group discussion with 13 undecided independent voters included a striking result: 11 of the 13 said they would vote for Donald Trump if the election were held now, and only two said they would vote for President Biden. The reason: overwhelming concern about the economy.
“But I was less surprised by the big vote for Trump than by this: The group didn’t blame Trump for things he was responsible or accountable for.
“For instance, several people linked their economic troubles to COVID, but they didn’t put any blame on Trump for that. Some were upset with the end of abortion rights nationally, but they didn’t tie that to Trump’s Supreme Court appointments. Several wanted bipartisanship, but they didn’t blame Trump for his hand in sinking the recent bipartisan border deal. One person, a Latina, blamed Trump for worsening racism in the country and recounted a searing incident that happened to her — but she was among the 11 who would vote for him anyway.”
Healey concludes that “a lot of our focus-group participants — and many voters — see Trump as an acceptable option in November, yet they don’t know or remember a lot about him.” This makes them, of course, highly susceptible to Trump campaign messaging asserting that the economy during his presidency was the greatest ever; that he’s a natural peacemaker who inspired respect for the United States everywhere; and that he’s a decent, law-abiding businessman (and family man!) whose near-constant forced court appearances are uniformly the product of his persecution by the other party.
Democrats, of course, will have opportunities (and increasingly, an obligation) to set the record straight about Trump and his presidency. But the difficult thing is that low-information voters also tend to be low-trust voters, which means they don’t tend to believe traditional arbiters of objective reality like the mainstream news media, and may not grant more truthful politicians superior credibility. Further distorting understanding of the Trump administration (and thus its possible return) is the huge trauma associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, which gives everything that immediately preceded the disaster an undeserved glow, while immolating memories of less powerful traumas associated with the former president’s tenure.
In other words, low-information voters who dislike politics so much that they are not inclined to dig into facts and evidence touching on political topics are highly vulnerable to the kind of disinformation that benefits Donald Trump. And if they are in a bad mood in November, they could help turn the election into a negative referendum on Joe Biden even if they are inviting something — and someone — far worse. Democrats will have to work hard to break through with the truth.