Yesterday’s DLC commentary on the president’s big Iraq speech suggested that yet again George W. Bush is demonstrating he’s the ultimate one-trick pony as a leader in time of war. He’s capable of communicating “resolve,” and not much of anything else.So I was more than a little interested in today’s Washington Post front-pager by Peter Baker and Dan Balz reporting that Bush is pursuing this we-make-no-mistakes tone of “confidence” on the advice of a political scientist who recently joined the National Security Council staff.The staffer in question, former Duke poli sci professor Peter Feaver (who also worked at the NSC early in the Clinton administration), is best known for a study he did with Duke colleague Christopher Gelpi on war leadership and U.S. public opinion. According to Baker and Balz, their big conclusion, based especially on Vietnam, is that the key factor in public support for a war is the perception that we’re winning, with presidential assurances on this front being particularly important.It’s not completely clear to me whether this characterization of Feaver and Gelpi’s views is accurate; some of it seems to be coming from unnamed “Bush aides.” And the piece also quotes Gelpi as saying that Bush’s latest speech was insufficiently specific in laying out a strategy for success in Iraq.But still, it’s more than passing strange that the White House would hire a political scientist to tell Bush exactly what he wants to hear in terms of his communication strategy on Iraq. It sounds sort of like scouring the earth for a dietician willing to tell a fat man that his habit of eating five pounds of ice cream a day is a good weight management technique.More importantly, it’s troublesome to learn that the White House thinks presidential spin on Iraq is more important to public support than the actual facts on the ground. All the “resolve” in the world won’t help Bush if the insurgency cannot be quelled, and if the Iraqis cannot achieve a political settlement that will make it possible for a stable government to function.The initial reaction to Bush’s speech doesn’t seem to indicate it had much of a positive effect on public opinion, and in part that’s because his expressions of “resolve” were insufficiently linked to the kind of specifics that could make them credible. Maybe it’s time for someone on the White House staff to break through the atmosphere of willful self-deception and suggest a communications strategy that’s based more on facts and less on spin. In other words, maybe Bush should be told to lay off the ice cream.
TDS Strategy Memos
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By Ed Kilgore
Pouring over the details of the gubernatorial recall election in California, some significant patterns emerged, as I noted at New York:
The overwhelming defeat of the effort to recall California governor Gavin Newsom was a big victory for a Democratic Party that has had its troubles lately. With the margin of victory for the “no on recall” campaign roughly doubling the already-robust advantage shown in pre-election polls, the earlier scare that the recall threw into the ranks of the Golden State’s dominant party dissipated entirely. With about three-fourths of the expected vote now counted, “no” leads “yes” by a 63.8 to 36.2 margin (which could get even larger if the usual pattern of last-cast mail ballots leaning Democratic manifests itself once again).
The “no” vote was remarkably close to Joe Biden’s performance in California in 2020 (he won 63.5 percent). Given the extreme partisan polarization that underlay the recall vote (exit polls showed 89 percent of self-identified Republicans voting “yes” and 94 percent of self-identified Democrats voting “no”), that means the partisan patterns of the presidential race were reduplicated to a remarkable extent in a non-presidential special election, where Democrats often experience a “falloff,” particularly when they control the White House (and in this case, the governorship). That’s great news for California Democrats, and not a bad sign for Democrats nationally, who are bracing for the midterm losses the “White House Party” typically suffers.But in assessing the implications of the results, it’s important to look back at what happened down ballot in California in 2020, while looking ahead to the most critical 2022 battleground, the fight for control of the House. Of the 13 net House seats Republicans gained in 2020, four were in deep-blue California. There is no likely path for Democrats to hang onto House control in 2022 without flipping some or all of those lost seats in one of their strongest states.
Precisely because of the reduplication of the 2020 patterns, there’s really nothing about the recall returns that suggests Democrats are sure to claw back some House seats in California. Two of the four seats Republicans flipped in 2020 (with Asian-American women Young Kim and Michelle Steele as candidates) were centered in Orange County. While “no” won in Orange, the recall race there was closer than the Biden-Trump contest of 2020. A third battleground seat was the one Republican David Valadao won in a very competitive section of the San Joaquin Valley. The recall improved on Trump’s 2020 performance in every county in his district (e.g., Trump won 55 percent in Kings County, but “yes” on recalling Newsom won 63 percent). These results could reflect an intensifying alienation of this heavily agricultural area from Sacramento’s environmental and water-supply policies. Or it could reflect a drop-off in Latino turnout that could spell disaster for Democrats in close 2022 races. Either way the recall numbers should give pause to Democratic optimism about midterm House races.
One study of 2020 returns in California showed Latino turnout trailing non-Latino turnout by about 10 percent. One mail-ballot tracker for the recall showed the turnout gap between Latinos and non-Latino white voters swelling to 20 percent. Youth turnout for the recall was also terrible, exit polls suggest. Yes, these are constituencies that are difficult to mobilize in special elections. But that’s also true of midterm elections, which is a problem Democrats in California and elsewhere need to solve.
The bottom line is that Newsom won the Democratic and Democratic-leaning elements of the California electorate by strongly encouraging partisan polarization via his lavishly funded campaign. This was the obvious smart strategy in this heavily Democratic state. It’s less clear the same strategy will work wonders downballot for Democrats in 2022, which they probably will not have a big financial advantage and shifts in public opinion away from the presidential winner may have settled in, as they did for the last three presidents. Even if Democrats hang onto their monopoly of statewide offices and their super-majorities in the state legislature, any failure to make progress in House races could contribute to the much-dreaded moment when Californian Nancy Pelosi hands over her gavel to Californian Kevin McCarthy, and the Democratic trifecta that gives Biden a chance to implement his agenda comes to an end.