washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Buying Their Own Spin

Nestled in a WaPo piece by Mike Allen and Jonathan Weisman on the second-term agenda that Bush is allegedly going to present tonight are two remarkable graphs:

Bush’s agenda consists almost entirely of expanded or repackaged ideas he has proposed before–partly because the deficit precludes major new programs. Outside economists said campaign strategists argued this week that the political terrain has shifted dramatically in the president’s favor and that specific proposals are unnecessary.
“The strategists are saying, ‘Everything is breaking our way. It looks like it’s almost over,'” said one close adviser who demanded anonymity. In this climate, the political strategists believe they have no reason to offer plans that would give opponents new targets to attack.

Now I have no doubt the Bushies would love to avoid the troublesome little chore of having to lay out a second-term agenda. But “It’s almost over“?
So far two national polls are out that reflect some of the impact of the convention. One, an ARG poll conducted August 30-September 1, shows Kerry up 2 among RVs. The other, a three-day-average tracking poll from Rasmussen, has Bush up 4 among LVs as of September 1. Unless BC04’s internal polling is showing something a lot more dramatic, it’s a tad early for these guys to be prancing around the end zone. Maybe they’re even committing the cardinal political sin of buying their own spin.
Remember: the Convention has given Republicans the opportunity to get voters to squint sideways at George W. Bush and John Kerry in the light most favorable–and perhaps the only light truly favorable–to the incumbent. But they’re not going to keep squinting sideways for two more months. Eventually, the two candidate’s actual records, and their actual proposals for the future, will get out there. And don’t forget that ol’ devil Objective Reality, which is not friendly to George W. Bush.
Objective Reality may dump a cloudburst on BC04 as early as tomorrow, when the latest monthly jobs report is released. Unless they’re playing rope-a-dope, administration officials act like they’re battening down the hatches for some ugly news.
And then there’s Iraq….


Zell’s-a-Poppin’

Zell Miller’s Republican handlers may or may not have made a mistake encouraging him to go up on the podium and howl at the moon last night. But they sure made a mistake letting him to go do a round of TV interviews afterwards, without spending some time in a decompression chamber.
During his first interview, on CNN, Judy Woodruff got him all flustered by asking the obvious question about his praise for Kerry’s defense record at a Georgia Democratic fundraiser three years ago. Miller wound up coming dangerously close to the ol’ George Romney “I was brainwashed” defense, essentially saying he was a “junior Senator” way back then who didn’t know what he was talking about.
Then Wolf Blitzer calmly pointed out that Dick Cheney as Defense Secretary had taken many of the same positions as Kerry on weapons systems during the late 80s and early 90s. Miller challenged that claim, but then retreated into incoherence, brandishing a sheaf of papers (maybe BC04 oppo research notes?), after Blitzer reminded him that he knew what he was talking about, having served as CNN’s Pentagon Correspondent in those days. The interview ended in embarrassed silence as Miller visibly struggled to regain his composure.
He should have called it a day, but instead appeared on “Hardball,” and after misunderstanding a question from Chris Matthews, said: “I wish we lived in the day where you could challenge a person to a duel.”
That’s the most honest thing Zell Miller said last night. He would have fit in much better back in those nineteenth century days when you picked sides in politics and just rolled in the mud. And if you decided to switch sides, you just moved to the other side of the ditch and rolled in the mud some more. If I believed in reincarnation, I’d suspect Zell Miller is the second coming of Andrew Johnson.


The Bigger Picture

If you want a big-picture reflection on the first three days of the convention, including a careful analysis of last night’s slander-o-thon, check out today’s New Dem Daily, entitled “The GOP Fun-House Mirror.”


Dogs of War

I suggested last week that the Republicans might “let slip the dogs of war” a bit earlier and more emphatically than they did in 2000. Boy, was that ever an understatement.
On an evening supposedly devoted to defending the administration’s economic record, the two big prime-time speakers, Zell Miller and Dick Cheney, unloaded a truckload of bile against John Kerry’s national security record. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard so many slurs, misleading inferences, and bold-face lies in the course of an hour of rhetoric. Miller didn’t bother to even mention the economy or any other domestic issue. Cheney barely did, and even then just trotted out the usual BC04 talking points with a notable lack of enthusiasm. This night was about destroying John Kerry, period.
Yesterday I wondered how Miller would explain his support for Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996. He didn’t even deign to mention, much less defend his strange transformation. But perhaps his own flip-flop led him to ignore that prong of the GOP attack on Kerry, and instead devote his entire speech to the argument that the Democratic candidate hates the military, hates his country, and would turn over the world to the French, if not to al Qaeda itself.
The Bushies supposedly thought Zell would help them win over swing voters. I have a hard time believing anybody was won over by this glowering rant. Not since Pat Buchanan’s famous “culture war” speech in 1992 has a major speaker at a national political convention spoken so hatefully, at such length, about the opposition. At the dark heart of the speech was the same old tired litany of lies and mischaracterizations about Kerry’s Senate votes on military spending and weapons systems that BC04 has been retailing for many months.
While Zell was too hot, Cheney was too cold, sounding more like a Haliburton exec speaking at a retirement dinner than a Vice President of the United States defending his administration’s record. Even his best attack lines, like the “John Kerry sees two Americas….America sees two John Kerrys” bit, were delivered with a tone of condescending sarcasm rather than conviction.
Unlike Miller, Cheney alternatively pursued both prongs of the attack on Kerry’s national security credentials: he’s a flip-flopper who always takes the wrong position. At some point, BC04 will have to make up its mind which one of these slurs it chooses to emphasize, and stick with it for a while. But clearly, this is a convention whose managers are not overly worried about logic. Inspired by the Swift Boat Veterans ads which they believe have turned the election completely around, the Bushies have gone negative with a real vengeance.


Zell’s Problem Graphically Presented

The Georgia Democratic Party has put up a video that you might want to watch before watching tonight’s Zell Miller speech. Even I had forgotten the strong parallels between Miller’s 1992 attack on George H.W. Bush and Kerry’s critique of his son today.


Zell’s Problem

Zell Miller’s “keynote” speech in NY tonight will obviously get a lot of attention. The DLC’s opinion on Zell’s apostasy is pretty clear, and can be found here and here.
But I’m interested, from a purely mechanical point of view, in seeing how Miller and his new GOP handlers deal with a certain logical problem about his speech. At some point, probably months ago, it dawned on BC04 operatives that Bush would be nominated in the same building where their new buddy Zell Miller gave the Democratic keynote address back in 1992. Hey, somebody said, wouldn’t it be cool to get Zell to keynote our convention?
The problem, of course, is that Zell’s return engagement in the Garden raises a pretty obvious question about what, exactly, happened between ’92 and now to convert him from a Bush-bashing partisan Democrat to a Kerry-bashing supporter of Bush the Younger. And as I assume at least someone in the media will remind viewers tonight (maybe CNN’s Paul Begala, who ghosted much of the ’92 speech), Miller did everything short of kicking Millie the First Dog to promote the eviction of W.’s dad from the White House back then.
Miller could obviously tell delegates he was wrong then, and right (not to mention Right) today. But at a time when much of the Convention is devoted to branding John Kerry as a flip-flopper, it probably won’t be helpful if the man once mocked by Georgia Republicans as “Zig-Zag Zell” suggests it’s possible to change your mind about anything.
Moreover, Miller has repeatedly rejected the apology route up until now. In his recent book, which many of his new right-wing friends probably haven’t actually read, he doesn’t for a moment apologize for supporting Clinton in ’92 or even in ’96. He suggests, instead, that the Democratic Party lurched off in a leftwards direction some time around 1998–roughly the same time that Miller moved to Washington and lost his bearings.
Call it a psychic flash, but I somehow don’t think Republican delegates are quite ready to applaud a speech that says: “If you liked Bill Clinton, you ought to love George W. Bush.”
My guess is that Miller will allude to his ’92 gig with a brief joke, and then spend the rest of his time churning out every anti-Kerry talking point he can download from the BC04 web page, nestled in a lot of faux-populist “humor” about the opposition of Democrats to the ownership of pickup trucks. But his speech does present a problem, and I hope the punditocracy gets over its dull-witted stupor in covering this Convention just enough to call him on it.


Slash and Burn

As some of you may remember, the Democratic Convention was characterized by a systematic refusal to “go negative” on George W. Bush, which probably disappointed a lot of delegates, but not so you’d notice it. In fact, with a very few exceptions, speakers were prohibited from even mentioning the incumbent’s name.
My understanding is that this especially hard line on negative rhetoric was taken after KE04 operatives focus-grouped a few speech drafts with undecided voters, and discovered that they absolutely hated anything that sounded like an attack on Bush.
It’s pretty obvious by now that the GOP has taken a different tack on going negative at its Convention. And it’s almost certain to get a lot worse tonight, with the headliners being Zell Miller, who loves negative rhetoric like a wino loves cheap muscatel, and Dick Cheney, who can barely take a breath without attacking Kerry and Edwards.
There are at least four possible explanations for the different approaches of the two parties on negative rhetoric:
1) The GOP truly has given up on undecided voters, and is truly concentrating on energizing its conservative base and maybe raiding a few conservative Democrats.
2) Voters hold a double standard whereby Democrats can’t get away with criticizing the Leader of the Free World, while it’s okay for the President’s party to call John Kerry a lyin’ liberal flip-flopper, so long as the invective does not come directly from the Compassionate-Conservative-in-Chief himself.
3) Republicans have become intoxicated by their belief that the Swift Vote Veterans ads have hurt Kerry, and have decided to throw out the rule book.
4) Rove and Co. know going negative is risky, but don’t think they have much choice at this point.
Of course, it’s also possible that today’s Republicans are just mean and nasty people who do this stuff because they enjoy it. But hey, I wouldn’t want to say anything that negative about them.


Hype Watch

I was pretty busy up in Boston, and didn’t watch much of the television coverage of the Democratic Convention. So you tell me: did the pundits gush over all the speeches like they’re doing in New York?
Best I can tell, most of the commentators, even those who are apparently supposed to be “objective” or even “pro-Democratic,” think Guiliani’s speech on Monday ranked up there with some of the best efforts of Demosthenes. And they clearly thought Arnold hit a Barry Bonds shot into the upper deck. (Personally, I thought the best podium appearance of the night was by the Bush Twins).
And hey, I was watching MSNBC and PBS. I didn’t have any blood pressure medication on hand, so I avoided Fox altogether. That was probably a smart move, according to WaPo’s wonderful TV critic, Tom Shales, who said this morning that Fox was covering the Convention like it’s a “happy birthday party for God.”
Maybe the entertainment paradigm for political media really has taken over, with commentators treating conventions like football games where ratings depend on the idea that every boring 7-3 contest is a Clash of Titans that will go down in the annals of sport.


Florida Senate Showdown

It’s being overshawdowed by the GOP Convention, but Floridians went to the polls today and nominated each party’s strongest candidate for the Senate seat being vacated by Bob Graham.
The White House’s guy, former HUD Secretary Mel Martinez, surprised many observers by thumping former Congressman Bill McCollum by a comfortable 45-31 margin. Martinez is a Cuban-American who will probably help the GOP get a desperately needed high turnout in that reliably Republican community; his pull among the fast-growing non-Cuban Hispanic population of Florida is more questionable. His background as a trial lawyer will also complicate Bush-Cheney campaign’s loud efforts to suggest that litigation costs are the main drag on the U.S. economy.
On the Democratic side, former state education commissioner Betty Castor’s win over Rep. Peter Deutsch and Miami-Dade Mayor Alex Pinelas was no surprise, but her margin was impressive, beating the lavishly financed Deutsch by a 59-27 margin. Castor has long been considered the strongest possible Democratic candidate, and she’s been running even with or a bit ahead of Martinez in most polls.


Arnold Reads His Lines

The Governor of California, featured along with First Lady Laura Bush on “Compassion Night” of the Republican National Convention, did a workmanlike job in lending his glamor and moderate reputation to George W. Bush. As he said at the beginning of the speech, it was sorta like an Oscar Ceremony, and on this stage as in the Academy Awards, he didn’t win any big prizes.
The most interesting part of Arnold’s pitch was something that’s emerging as the major theme of this convention: the conflation of America with its president, and the identification of patriotism with Republicanism. America’s a great place, so it must have a great chief executive. Americans have been reminded of their pride in their country since 9/11, so America must re-elect the guy who was given the opportunity to emblemize that pride immediately after 9/11. Republicans are more jingoistic than Democrats, so voters feeling a bit more jingoistic than in the past should vote Republican. It’s simple, and simple-minded stuff, but it’s clearly what Karl Rove thinks will win.
Arnold didn’t pay much attention to John Kerry, though both his references to the opposition were guaranteed media play because they included allusions to his movie career: the “True Lies” shot at the Democratic Convention, and the inevitable “girly man” line about Democratic critiques of Bush’s economic record. It’s interesting, if you think about it. In 2000 Republicans whined about the few dark corners they could find in the dazzling economic record of Bill Clinton, but nobody accused them of a lack of patriotism. This whole GOP Convention is about making George W. Bush so intimately connected with post-9/11 national pride that voters are literally unwilling to use their minds in assessing the incumbent’s record.