washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Rove Reverts To Type

Today’s NYT tells you most of what you need to know about the President’s re-election strategy going into the home stretch. Elisabeth Bumiller reports on Bush’s savage new stump speech, first unveiled in PA last week. As I noted when the speech first went up on the BC04 web page, the speech is almost entirely a negative attack on Kerry, and almost entirely based on distortions of the challenger’s record and unsupported name-calling. Bumiller notes that all the positive stuff about the administration’s record has been dumped out of the speech, apparently at the insistence of Karl Rove. (A separate AP story observes that neither Karl Rove nor Karen Hughes can take a breath without calling Kerry a “liberal”).
A front-page Pear and Toner piece in the Times on the new Medicare Rx drug benefit helps explain why Bush doesn’t want to go into the final presidential debate all puffed up about his domestic record. It’s clear by now that the discount drug card that was the first phase of the new initiative has been pretty much a bust so far; by and large seniors don’t like it, and don’t trust it. And remember: this was supposed to be the easy part of the initiative, the no-pain, first-course-dessert that would make everybody happy before the broccoli is served in 2006, when the full Medicare drug coverage, with its convoluted premium structure and ever-escalating costs, is implemented.
Rove, of course, would probably urge Bush to go negative even if he did have something positive to talk about. You may have heard about Josh Green’s profile of Rove in the latest (subscription only) Atlantic Monthly. Green makes a very astute observation about Rove’s history that may show why his faith in negative campaigning is so strong, and why it might be misplaced today. Most of Rove’s past campaigns were in two states–Texas and Alabama–that were at the time loaded with conservative, ticket-splitting Democrats likely to swing Republican in an ideologically polarized election. In that atmosphere, relentlessly attacking a Democratic candidate as a godless liberal simultaneously served the GOP’s base-moblization and swing voter strategies. But few battleground states today are anything like Texas and Alabama in the ’80s and ’90s. If Bush stays negative right on through to election day, he will (a) help Democrats with their own turnout strategy, and (b) quite possibly alienate swing voters who are already unhappy with the incumbent’s record.
The other possible flaw in Rove’s strategy is that he may be overestimating the willingness of both the news media and the public to swallow the poisonous distortions of Kerry’s record and agenda that his candidate is so shamelessly spewing into the air waves.
As revealed by Drudge, The Note’s Mark Halperin sent a memo to his ABC colleagues warning them not to simply report exchanges between the campaigns as morally equivalent, because: “The current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done.” Josh Marshall notes that Fox News is already trying to Ratherize Halperin (an absurd characterization given The Note’s unctuous treatment of BC04 throughout the campaign), and I’m sure other conservative media will follow. It will be interesting–not to mention important–to see if the rest of the political world will go along with the idea that the president’s flat-out lies about Kerry’s record should be treated as no more negative than Kerry’s efforts to point out what’s actually happening in Iraq.
I’ll say this: if Bush wins this thing by following Rove’s strategy, it will have a baleful effect on political campaigns here and around the world for years to come. So much for Bush’s interest in spreading the blessings of democracy.

Battle For Big MO

Last night’s “town-hall” presidential debate in Missouri was about what I expected. The two things Bush most wanted to do–to get over the defensive stammering and fidgeting and incoherent repetitions of his first debate peformance, and to aggressively Dukakisize Kerry as a tax-and-spend-weak-on-defense-big-government-liberal–led him to an unusually combative manner. And indeed, Bush was most effective rhetorically when he was distorting Kerry’s record and reinforcing every old Democratic stereotype, and least effective when he had to defend his own record. Kerry won most of the debating points, and generally repeated his strong first-debate performance, though he got tripped up a bit on two cultural issues towards the end.
Much of the buzz about the debate seems to revolve around Bush’s manner. I suspect voter reactions to his banty rooster routine last night–strutting around the stage and shouting and crowing–will break down on partisan lines. Republicans will see it as a projection of strength and likeability; Democrats as grating and exaggerated.
On foreign policy and security issues, including Iraq, the second debate changed nothing, which is bad news for the incumbent.
As in the veep debate, the discussion of domestic issues was a little thin, but very interesting. Kerry cleaned Bush’s clock on the drug-reimportation issue, the one moment when the incumbent fell back into the defensive incoherence of the first debate.
Bush had two other very weird moments. Asked about his record on the environment, the president barked: “Off-road diesel engines,” a good example of a talking point headline leaping directly to the tongue of an overbriefed debater. And in the discussion of his judicial philosophy, Bush made it clear he had one absolute litmus test for Supreme Court candidates: he wouldn’t appoint a justice who supported the 1857 Dred Scott decision upholding the Fugitive Slave Act.
This reassuring statement should boost Bush’s support levels among African-Americans all the way up into the high single digits.
On the inter-related issues of taxes, the budget, and “big government,” Bush again tried to keep the focus on Kerry, not himself–a revealing tactic, since his tax cuts are the sum and substance of his whole economic and fiscal record. Most interestingly, Bush didn’t put much effort into the claim that Kerry’s tax proposals would boost taxes for the middle class; instead, he simply asserted that Kerry’s the kind of guy–you know, a tax-and-spend liberal–who’ll raise everybody’s taxes first chance he gets.
Even though I knew it was coming, I nearly attacked the screen when Bush trotted out the bogus National Journal “most liberal senator” rating of Kerry in 2003. I guess I’m going to have to personally hand-deliver the DLC’s analysis of that rating–and especially its bizarre description of deficit-reduction measures as “liberal”–to every journalist in Christendom.
I was delighted to see Kerry mention that the president’s party controls Congress. He should do a lot more of that down the stretch. And on the tax issue, he would be well advised to remind voters that small businesses–and for that matter, millionaires–did a whole lot better under the tax rates of the Clinton years than they are doing today.
Surprisingly, there were no questions about gay marriage. And the abortion question posed to Kerry was a real curve-ball, asking him to specifically address himself to people who think abortion is “murder” (not exactly the formulation you’d expect from an undecided voter), and to the question of government funding for abortions, an issue that hasn’t been the focus of abortion politics for about fifteen years.
Similarly, the question about stem-cell research was worded in the way best suited to Bush’s purposes–distinguishing between adult and embryonic stem cells. This got the discussion immediately down into the technical weeds, and enabled Bush to cut through the details and claim he’s just trying to balance ethics and science. I suspect Kerry will find a way to nail him on this one in the third debate.
Neither candidate committed any obvious gaffes, but Bush’s answer to the very last question was one of those things that post-debate analysis could turn into real problem for the incumbent, because it reinforces a basic aspect of the candidate’s character that voters find troublesome. Asked directly to name three mistakes he’s made as president, Bush couldn’t do it, though he vaguely talked about appointments he now regrets. As Josh Marshall acutely observed in his take on the debate, you just know Bush was thinking about administration officials like Paul O’Neill, Richard Clarke, George Tenet, and John DiIulio–people who had the temerity to suggest the president had made mistakes.
Bush’s chronic refusal to admit mistakes when even his strongest supporters acknowledge them is beginning to look downright pathological, and if it continues, it could undermine all of his positive “character” and “likeability” ratings.
So: who if anyone got the Big Mo–in MO and in other battleground states–from this debate? I suspect the answer depends strictly on how you think the race was developing prior to last night.
Many Bush partisans think the president was cruising towards an easy and inevitable win prior to the first debate; they will naturally now claim his performance last night will put him back on the glide pattern to victory.
I think the first debate simply helped bring the contest back to its natural dead-even state, and that a whole host of factors–Kerry’s steadiness, bad news at home and abroad, Democratic advantages in the ground game, and most of all, the natural tendency of late-breaking voters to focus on, and turn against, the incumbent’s record–favor the challenger down the stretch.

Reality Rolls In

As Political Animal Kevin Drum pointed out earlier this week, these are tough times for those administration spinners who are trying to convince the country that the bluebird of happiness is sitting on George W. Bush’s shoulder. Day after day, BC04 upbeat talk about Iraq, past, present, and future, is getting hammered by reality. The polls have turned on W. The resolute, confident commander-in-chief we saw in New York morphed into a self-parody in last week’s debate. The Republican Congress is about to go home in a blaze of pork and ethics scandals, having accomplished less than any Congress in recent history.
And to top it off, today’s Final Job Numbers confirm that Bushonomics has basically deployed a couple of trillion dollars in deficit spending to produce a tepid and shaky recovery characterized by wage stagnation and rising insecurity.
This is the reality that Bush must try to distort, explain, or ignore in tonight’s debate. I suspect his performance tonight won’t be as bad as the last. The president’s handlers have undoubtedly retrained him in that lip-pursing thing he uses to suppress the frat-boy smirk that reappeared so alarmingly in the first debate. Maybe the town-hall format will enable him to show off his famous rapport with regular guys.
But my guess is that Bush will go savagely negative on Kerry tonight, packing the best sound-bite put-downs money can buy. With the reality of the Bush record beginning to roll in like a toxic fog, making the election a referendum on his opponent is about the last play left for George W. Bush.

The ComCon

Remember “compassionate conservatism,” the alleged new ideology of non-bureaucratic activism on social problems that Bush trademarked in 2000? It’s back, in the president’s rhetoric at least. Indeed, you’ll probably hear quit a bit it in tonight’s debate (gotta do something to fill the void left by all those “this is hard work” references, which became such a universal object of derision).
The “compassionate conservative” label is a classic Karl Rove two-fer: (1) it’s reassuring to the millions of Americans who aren’t too keen about old-fashioned, uncompassionate conservatism of the Newt Gingrich, let-em-go-to-orphanages variety; and (2) it’s appealing to the religious conservatives of the GOP base, who do generally believe the Lord wants them to help the poor and sick along with banning abortion and gay relationship and building a missile defense system. The Christian Right also, of course, likes the so-called Faith-Based Organizations initiative that’s been the centerpiece of the ComCon agenda.
But like so many signature Bush initiatives–indeed, like all of them that don’t involve cutting taxes for the wealthy or invading Iraq–the reality behind the rhetoric is pretty feeble. If only to get yourself ready to hoot at the screen tonight, you should definitely check out a new Progressive Policy Institute study that concludes Bush has done little or nothing to advance his “compassionate conservative” agenda. Most astounding, when you think about it, is that despite the three separate major tax bills he’s pushed through Congress, Bush hasn’t lifted a finger to implement his biggest ComCon proposal: making charitable contributions deductible for non-itemizers. In fact, given the baleful impact on charities of Bush’s drive to eliminate the estate tax, and the lousy economy, it’s pretty clear his term in office has been a terrible experience for both religious and secular charities.
The PPI study makes it abundantly clear that ComCon is just a con. It would be nice if the president were willing to admit it and say: “Compassion… that’s a word they use in Washington, DC.”

The Reform Mask Slips

If I’m right in suggesting that the Bush-Cheney campaign is in the process of pivoting towards an old-style Liberal!Liberal!Liberal! campaign seeking to Dukakisize John Kerry, a big part of the message will be that George W. Bush and his party are brave reformers seeking to bring Washington under control. That may seem preposterous to anyone who knows the iron partisan control the GOP exercises over the federal government today, but intellectual honesty just doesn’t matter at all to these guys.
What could really step on this message, of course, would be real-life events that expose the GOP’s power-lust, and its eager embrace of all the corruption that comes with political power, especially among people who actually oppose using government for any higher ends.
And that may be happening right now.
Tom DeLay, having set a new modern record for rebukes by the House Ethics Committee, is in serious trouble, with investigations continuing into his possible involvement in a whole host of sleazy tactics used by his friends to plan, finance, and engineer the Great Texas Power Grab–the GOP’s successful effort to force a second redistricting of TX congressional districts to pad the party’s margin in the House and further insulate DeLay and company from any troublesome meddling by voters.
But there’s another story that could pack even more dynamite against the GOP’s drive for perpetual control of Washington. The Senate investigation (led by retiring Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell and the very unretiring Sen. John McCain) of Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff is unfolding an incredibly tawdry tale of shakedowns and influence-peddling, involving a guy with close and deep connections with the whole rogue’s gallery of conservative gangbangers–Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Ralph Reed, and Grover Norquist, to mention a few.
And speaking of our ol’ buddy Grover, his baleful influence was illustrated again today in the WaPo op-ed pages. You may recall that Grover got into a little hot water recently when he penned a column for a Spanish newspaper that cheerfully predicted the Democratic Party was literally dying off as those inveterate socialists of the Greatest Generation went off to the welfare state in the sky. Grover squawked that he was misquoted, but today that staid symbol of conservative respectability George Will recycled (without attribution) exactly the same argument in all its cynical and malicious glory. Indeed, Will managed to lower the tone of Norquist’s argument by adding the smear that fear of losing its funding base among trial lawyers and public employees is the only reason Democrats oppose Bush’s domestic agenda (conversely, BTW, Karl Rove has been known to argue that destroying the Democratic donor base is the primary reason his boss wants to enact tort reform and shrink the more progressive precincts of government).
Now, I obviously don’t know if the DeLay and Abramoff ethics probes represent tempests in a teapot or another Teapot Dome. And maybe I’m exaggerating the significance of a guy like George Will buying into the Norquist-Rove reduction of every public policy question into a scramble for cash. But we already know the Bush claim to be a “reformer with results” is nonsense, and that the GOP’s claim to be the anti-Washington party is outrageous nonsense. The question is whether the mask of deception will slip in time for voters to do something about it.

Here Comes the Bush Pivot

I’ve been figuring for a while now that BC04 would eventually begin to pivot at least partially from the “flip-flop” attacks on John Kerry to the more conventional conservative argument that JK is an old-fashioned, big-government, tax and spend liberal.
If Bush’s new stump speech, unveiled today in the NE Pennsylvania cockpit of one battleground state, is any indication, the pivot is fully underway. It’s a very primitive and totally negative speech, emblematic of a president who can’t claim the political center and thus is determined to shove his opponent to the fringes by sheer assertion and extensive misrepresentation of his record. Aside from focusing on some random 1972 Kerry statement on the role of the UN (we all know how substantive Bush was three decades ago, right?), the speech repeats the usual GOP lies about Kerry’s defense record; accuses Kerry of an inveterate desire to raise taxes and expand government; and heavily features the one-year “most liberal Senator” rating of Kerry by the National Journal, a claim the DLC demolished months ago.
It’s hard to believe that the president, whose fiscal record is a disaster, and whose administration and party bestride Washington like a colossus, is trying to make John Kerry the candidate of Big Government and of runaway federal spending. But if we know anything about BC04, it’s that it treats facts and reason, and the intelligence of the American people, with equal contempt.
Get ready for some real outrages.

Best of the Veep Debate

If you want a Big Picture analysis of last night’s veep debate, check out today’s New Dem Daily.
The most my exhausted brain can manage is a list of Superlatives:
1. Best Pure Debate Point: After Edwards did his indictment of Halliburton, and Cheney declined to respond within the assigned thirty seconds, Edwards took the unused time and went through the same argument, word for word. Pull that one across the flow chart, judge.
2. Best Rebuttal: When Cheney did the usual trial-lawyer bashing number, Edwards responded in a way that (a) described the problem, (b) showed more emphathy than Cheney for doctors with high malpractice insurance premiums, and (c) came down emphatically on the side of injured regular folks–and with a personal anecdote to boot.
3. Cleverest Cheney Gambit: The veep’s reflection on the humble origins he shared with Edwards was smart for three reasons: (1) most Americans probably assume Cheney grew up with oil derricks in his back yard; (2) he needs something humble in his background to counterbalance his striking lack of humility today; and (3) it’s always good to identify with po’ folks when you have the demeanor of a bank president foreclosing a family farm, and you’re making the argument that rich people deserve more tax breaks.
4. Most Disingenuous Cheney Gambit: There’s a lot of competition for this one, but my fave was the veep’s sorrowful expression of bafflement about the decline of bipartisanship in Washington. That’s kind of like a strip mall developer wondering why the traffic’s getting so bad.
5. Best ripostes I wish Edwards Had Delivered: (1) When Cheney sneered about Edwards’ poor Senate attendance record, he might have responded: “With your party running the Congress, what’s the point of showing up? I haven’t missed anything important. Schedule some real business, and I’ll punch the clock.” (2) When Cheney claimed (inaccurately) that he had never met Edwards, he should have said: “It’s hard to meet a man who spent two solid years in an undisclosed secure location.”
6. Best Psych-War Tactic: KE04’s arragement to have Pat Leahy sitting in the front row,
7. Greatest Disconnect Between Words and Body Language: Cheney’s warm “thank-you” to Edwards for talking about his lesbian daughter. The Veep clearly wanted to repeat the anatomically impossible suggestion he made a few months ago to Leahy.
8. Best Zinger Edwards Couldn’t Use, But It Woulda Been Fun: Two nominations: (1) if Cheney had repeated Bush’s litany on Kerry’s terrible disrespecting of Brave Coalition Ally Poland: “The Polish government just announced it was pulling its troops out of Iraq by year’s end. As Gerald Ford’s chief of staff, Mr. Cheney should know better than to talk about Poland.” (2) After Cheney’s “global test” tirade: “I don’t know why the vice president is so hung up about this word “global.” The earth is a ‘globe,’ you know. It’s not flat. The economy’s not doing well. And your Iraq policies aren’t working.”
9. Most Questionable Sartorial Choice: Cheney’s red power tie was definitely coals-to-Newcastle. If I were him, I’d have fished out that Snoopy tie he received as a gag gift at the last Halliburton Christmas party.
10. Best Opening Line Either Candidate Could Have Used: [with a British accent:] HELLO CLEVELAND!

Where Does Bush Worship?

In the best blogger tradition, Amy Sullivan has decided to keep pointing out that the famously faith-based President of the United States doesn’t seem to go to church very often, and certainly hasn’t joined any congregation of believers. Her hope is that somebody on the campaign beat will start watching for signs of Bush’s relative interest in expressing solidarity with the Mystical Body of Christ (the term that both Bush’s Methodists and his family’s Episcopalians apply to the Church), much as they track John Kerry’s every approach to the altar rail.
In her latest post on the subject, for The New Republic, Sullivan disposes of all the excuses offered for Bush’s disinclination towards community worship, and points out that Republicans are forever citing frequency of church attendance as a key dividing line between the Red State faithful and the Blue State spiritual slackers. Moreover, she rightly suggests the question is relevant because Bush himself has made his faith so central an issue in his presidency, and his campaign.
I’m reminded of a famous quote from a less culturally polarized time in our history, when a reporter asked the wife of Mr. Republican, Senator Robert Taft, where he worshipped on Sunday mornings. She blurted out: “At Burning Tree,” naming the congressional golf course.

More Yardage Figures on the Ground Game

In a new post on the New Republic site, John Judis sifts through the evidence about new voter registrations in a number of battleground states. His conclusion is that Dems are doing a lot better than their rivals in the Midwest, while they’re trying to catch up with earlier Republican efforts in Florida.
Remember, though: boosting voter registration is just stage one of the Ground Game. The real key is voter turnout. And I remain convinced that Dems will have a big advantage there, because (1) high-turnout elections currently favor Democrats, (2) the peripheral voters most likely to vote Democratic are more geographically concentrated, making turnout efforts more efficient, and (3) Democrats are investing a lot more money and people in turnout efforts than the opposition.
And also remember this: you gotta get close to even in the “air war” for persuadable voters before the Ground Game really matters. Current polls are generally showing that Kerry is now drawing even with Bush. And as Mark Penn notes in today’s WaPo, the CW that there are no “swing” voters this year is rather obviously being undermined by the large swings in support for Bush and Kerry over the last month.

The Donkey Welcomes the Moose

Back when the blogosphere was in its infancy, one of the most influential and entertaining blogs was Marshall Wittmann’s McCainiac site The Bull Moose. While The Moose took shots at Democratic Orthodoxy on more than one occasion, his real ire was aimed at the desecration of the Republican Party by the unholy alliance of Neo-Gilded Age corporate cronies and the organized Religious Right–the very forces that spearheaded George W. Bush’s savage 2000 primary campaign against John McCain.
Wittman shut down his blog upon answering the call of duty and going to work for McCain as his legislative director. But now that McCain has decided to cast his lot with the Elephants one more time, The Moose has sprung loose of the GOP and has gone to work for the DLC and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute. Here’s a link to his explanation of his decision to defect, and of his belief that John Kerry offers a far greater possibility for a revival of the Teddy Roosevelt progressive tradition than the unreformed and money-mad Bush-era Republicans.
Soon Wittman will bring back the Bull Moose blog in some form. NewDonkey welcomes him to the DLC menagerie.