washington, dc

The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Ed Kilgore

Anti-Labor Day

As Dana Milbank and Spenser Hsu noted in today’s WaPo, George W. Bush spoke to union audiences on the last three Labor Days, but instead spent yesterday regaling a partisan crowd in rural Missouri with his stump speech.
Now perhaps BC04 simply couldn’t find a friendly union audience this time around. And there’s no question Rove and company wanted to keep the campaign focused on the GOP convention message that all this economy and deficit and health care and energy stuff should be subordinate to the argument that Bush is the embodiment of America’s war on terrorism.
But the attitude of this president towards labor is worth thinking about in some depth.
And I’m not just talking about the labor movement. Yeah, this administration seems to hate unions like sin, and appears perfectly happy to appeal to union members not in terms of their economic interests, but through a combination of national security fear tactics and the usual cultural slurs against the opposition.
On a more fundamental level, however, Bush’s policies represent the most profound disrespecting of the value of labor and the contributions of working families to our economy in a long, long time.
The most obvious example of this attitude is the administration’s tax strategy, which is clearly aimed at shifting the burden of government from wealth to work. Bush has already succeeded at least provisionally in eliminating federal taxation of inherited wealth. He has also succeeded in “flattening” personal income tax rates, and is reportedly flirting with a full-fledged “flat tax” assault on the principle of progressive taxation. His goal in the aborted 2003 tax offensive was to all but eliminate federal taxation of investment income. His friends in Congress are beavering away at the task of undermining federal taxation of corporations, through an assortment of new loopholes and concessions. Everywhere you look, the federal tax base is getting narrower, and where it’s broadest is in the taxation of work.
Worse yet, Bush’s borrowing binge means that this narrow tax base will have to sustain an even-larger share of today’s spending and tomorrow’s interest costs. Add in the strong possibility that the GOP’s raids on the Social Security trust fund will likely mean either (a) cuts in benefits or (b) increases in the most regressive tax on labor, the payroll tax, and you’ve got one of the most profound tax shifts from wealth to work in history. And that’s without even considering the reverse-Robin-Hood tilt of Bush’s spending policies….
But it gets worse. Bush’s economic strategy, such as it is, increasingly focuses on the atavistic premise that lowering the cost of doing business is the sole key to economic growth.
Why is this atavistic? Let me explain.
As regular readers of this blog have probably figured out, I’m from the South. And I’m just old enough to have experienced the tail end of the century of grinding poverty the South experienced following the Civil War–not just for African-Americans, but for most of the population.
If you had to identify one simple reason for this grinding poverty, beyond the legacy of racism, it was the perpetual delusion of southern political and business leaders that the region had to stay poor and dumb in order to attract the capital necessary to eventually climb out of the ditch. Like some of today’s third world countries, the South, right up to the 1970s, was paralyzed by the idea that decent wages, unionization, protection of natural resources, business regulation, progressive taxes, and quality education were all impossible because they would “price” the region out of opportunities for economic development. All of the South’s social and economic weaknesses were perceived as essential to maintaining a “good business climate.” And that benighted belief also helped perpetuate Jim Crow, since the ability to keep roughly a third of the region’s population in semi-serfdom gave the South a cost advantage no other part of the country could ever meet.
Gradually, by the 1970s and 1980s, southern political leaders, and even many business leaders, woke up to the fact that deliberately maintaining a low standard of living wasn’t worth the paltry payoff in low-wage textile jobs. And slowly but surely, a consensus developed that decent education and adequate public services were positive, not negative, factors in long-term economic development. The states that pursued this “high road” strategy–especially North Carolina and Georgia–tended to prosper. The states that stayed on the low road–especially Mississippi and Alabama–didn’t.
That’s why it is so profoundly depressing to see the theory of economic development that my home region finally began to abandon over the last few decades now being embraced by the national government as the way for America to successfully compete in a global economy.
That’s sure what it looks like to me. And it’s the best measurement imaginable of how far off track Bush has taken our economic policies over the last four years. Bill Clinton endlessly proclaimed the key to U.S. leadership in an information-age economy was to promote innovation, encourage small entrepreneurs, value work, and invest in the knowledge and skills of our workforce. Implicitly and sometimes explicitly, today’s Republican party argues that the key to economic success is to reduce taxes, end regulation, insulate businesses from the costs of malfeasance, slow down environmental protection, subsidize corporate operations, gut collective bargaining, and shift as many public services, including public education, into the private sector.
If that approach made any sense, then Mississippi would be the economic dynamo of the nation, and of the world. But that’s the road this administration and its party appears to be paving for us all.
So when you hear Kerry or Edwards talk about Bush’s tendency to value “wealth, not work,” this isn’t just a clever campaign line. It’s an accurate description of the GOP’s basic world-view of the economy, and it’s worth shouting about.

Back to Reality

Dismayed that about half my posts on this blog have been about polls, I’m not going to delve into the new CNN/USA Today/Gallup survey that shows a much smaller Bush convention bounce than the Time and Newsweek polls that freaked out so many Democrats over the weekend. Check out Ruy Teixeira’s analysis, and if that’s not enough, look at Gallup’s own take, which pours gallons of cold water on the idea that the GOP Convention was a brilliant success (Gallup also provides a peak behind the curtain about the assumptions behind its “likely voter” definition: it’s based on the theory that turnout on November 2 will be 55%).
Frankly, I’m less worried about polls right now than about the bad advice some Democrats are offering Kerry in panicked reaction to the polls, and to the GOP Convention: Stop talking about national security, they say. That’s Bush’s issue. Talk about Medicare and jobs.
Sure, after a Republican confab where domestic issues were at most an afterthought, the Kerry campaign needs to remind Americans about those issues, and how poorly the administration has handled them. More generally, he needs to hammer away on Bush’s entire record. But that doesn’t mean conceding national security to the GOP. That’s the Mother Of All Democratic Delusions, dating back for decades. And if “decades” is too much to think about, then consider 2002, when most Democratic congressional candidates either ignored national security and then talked about Social Security and prescription drugs, or agreed with Bush on national security and then talked about Social Security and prescription drugs. It didn’t work then, and there’s no reason to think it will work now.
The truth is that Bush is as vulnerable on national security as he is on domestic policy. He’s squandered the pricesless strategic asset of the good will America enjoyed around the world after 9/11. He let Osama get away at Tora Bora. He made no real effort to get international support for the invasion of Iraq, and then, in a dumb and ideologically driven decision, gave the “go” signal without any post-war planning, and without committing enough U.S. troops to secure the country. He was dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to homeland security, and now he’s being dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to intelligence reform. At some point, if we’re lucky, he’ll be dragged kicking and screaming into a half-assed commitment to do something about the unsecured nuclear materials floating around a dangerously unstable former Soviet Union.
John Kerry is the right candidate to raise all these points and score on them, not because he won medals in Vietnam, but because he’s never, ever been willing to concede national security issues to the GOP. And I doubt he’s going to start now.
Kerry’s immediate strategy should be to expose the bizarre parallel universe constructed by the Republicans in New York; remind Americans of Bush’s bad record on almost every issue; and challenge Bush’s arrogant refusal to lay out a credible second-term agenda.
If you had to sum up Al Gore’s most important mistake in 2000 (yes, I know, he won the popular vote and got jobbed in Florida), it was his campaign’s inability to make Objective Reality its friend, at a time when a big majority of Americans thought the country was on the right track and that his administration’s policies were working. Now KE04 needs to identify the incumbent with a very different, and far less positive, state of affairs, and then let reality set in.

A Calm Look At the Polls

As all you political junkies out there know, Time and Newsweek released polls earlier this weekend showing Bush opening up an 11-point lead over Kerry during the GOP Convention. (The Newseek poll was of RVs; the Time poll was of LVs; Time had Bush up 8 among RVs in a two-way race, up 9 among RVs in a three-way race). The Newsweek internals had Bush doing a bit better across the board, and Kerry doing a lot worse across the board. The most interesting internal was that 45 percent of voters think Kerry is too liberal, while only 32 percent think Bush is too conservative. In other words, the Bush tactic of seizing the center by claiming Kerry’s more out of the mainstream that he is has worked to some extent. But that gives Kerry the opportunity to push back.
I stand by my contention that there’s no reason for Democratic panic, or for over-reaction by KE04 (yeah, they need to get it in gear, but purposefully, not frantically). For one thing, we haven’t seen enough polling data yet to judge whether the news weeklies, who’ve had a pretty erratic polling record this year, have it right. Zogby‘s got a poll covering the same period that shows Bush’s lead at 2. And while Zogby’s record in state polling has been suspect in recent years, his national surveys have been fairly accurate.
Josh Marshall reports that both campaigns’ internal polls show Bush up about 4 right after the convention.
More importantly, it’s unclear whether the Bush bounce represents a fundamental shift in the race, or merely a gut reaction to (a) obsessive media coverage of the Swift Boat smear, merging into (b) a big assault on the Democrat in New York, and (c) a convention that framed the election, and media treatment of the election, in the most positive possible light for the incumbent.
Interestingly, the only poll out after the Time and Newsweek surveys shows a quick drop in Bush’s margin. Rasmussen’s three-day tracking poll through Saturday shows Bush’s lead dropping from 4.4 percent on September 3 to 1.2 percent on September 4 (no info on daily numbers, unfortunately). Yeah, I know, this is Rasmussen we’re talking about, but sometimes even the shakiest tracking polls do pick up trends.
Then there’s the Objective Reality factor. Hurricanes and college football aside, there have been three big news stories since the balloon drop in New York that might influence the race.
(1) The July jobs report (jobs up 144k, unemployment slightly down) was marginally helpful to Bush, though the bad news is that it virtually guarantees a September interest rate hike.
(2) The announcement that Medicare Part B premiums will jump a record 17 percent next year is terrible news for Bush. He probably made a mistake in his acceptance speech identifying himself with the new Rx drug benefit, which seniors generally dislike; discovering that they’ll pay more next year for Medicare without obtaining anything new that they value won’t help their mood. Kerry’s already yelling about this, as he should.
(3) The impact of the growing nightmare in Russia–sort of a slow-motion 9/11–is harder to assess. The CW is that anything reminding voters of the war on terror helps Bush. The minority view, which I share, is that Bush’s strength is the perception that he’s made America, and the world, a safer place, and it’s unclear how voters will react to signs that Islamic terrorism is actually on the rise, even if it’s in another country.

True Lies

There was a disturbing little passage in John Harris’ WaPo piece today about the impact of Zell Miller’s Wednesday night rant from New York. After examining the evidence that many of Zell’s new GOP friends weren’t exactly happy with his Angry Werewolf routine, Harris reported this:
“A focus group conducted with 17 independent voters in Ohio by GOP pollster Frank Luntz for MSNBC drew a mostly positive response. These voters, Luntz said, did not care for Miller’s attacks on the Democratic Party because they were too ‘broad-brush,’ but the attacks on Kerry resonated because Miller anchored his criticism in specific arguments about Kerry’s record.
“‘They liked facts,’ Luntz said. ‘They’re not responding to style. They’re asking for a level of detail.'”
There’s a lesson here for all you young aspiring political consultants. When you get ready to smear an opponent, be sure to get real specific about it. Season your character assassination with a few facts and figures. Avoid “broad-bush” attacks. “Senator Bilbo Sells Out America” is far less effective than “Senator Bilbo Sells Out America For Thirty Pieces of Silver.”
It’s all about credibility.

Bush Hits a Ground Rule Double

I have to admit at the outset here that I’m really struggling to remain objective about the 2004 GOP convention. Plenty of people (including many Democrats) a lot smarter than me have overruled my low opinion of the Guiliani and Schwarzenneger speeches. And my basic reaction to Cheney’s speech as the sort of thing you’d hear at a small-town Rotary luncheon hasn’t turned out to be a trendsetter, either.
So: I assume my objectivity gland has swollen up and maybe busted, and perhaps I missed the brilliance and political power of George W. Bush’s acceptance speech.
To be sure, the prez delivered this speech well, as he generally does when he doesn’t have to think on his feet. There was a bit of Gerson poetry here and there. Even when he attacked Kerry, he managed to remain relatively upbeat. And he really, really has mastered the art of suppressing his natural smirk with the lip-pursing thing and an occasional Pepsodent smile.
Having said that, my impression of Bush’s Big Speech is that it performed several tasks fairly well, without conveying much of an overall case for his re-election. He checked a lot of boxes, without getting outside the boxes much at all. Specifically he:
(1) Offered a superficial defense of his record on domestic issues, about as thorough as Cheney’s Rotary speech;
(2) Labored through a second-term agenda that convinced media bean-counters to announce “15 new initiatives,” though I only counted two that were really new, assuming you don’t take seriously his content-free lines about reforming and simplifying the tax code;
(3) Identified himself and his party with a combo platter of Clintonian, New Democrat themes, ranging from the general endorsement of “empowering government” to specific, if hazy ideas about lifelong learning.
(4) Hit Kerry with several of the poll-tested “flip-flop” lines we’ve heard throughout the convention, while perhaps opening up a second front by talking about Kerry as an example of old-fashioned, pre-Clinton liberals.
(5) Echoed the general convention message that 9/11 equals Iraq, and that questioning how we are doing in Iraq questions America’s courage.
(6) Reinforced the personal message that he knows who he is and what he wants to do, even if he can’t explain it before or after the fact.
(7) Threaded an important needle by including mildly “self-deprecating” lines about his verbal challenges and his Texas swagger, without ever admitting a single mistake in how he’s run the country.
Predictably, the delegates were pretty quiet during the obligatory domestic stuff, really waking up when Bush checked the cultural conservative boxes of “respecting the unborn” and defending traditional marriage, and then getting into the groove of chanting “USA” and “Four More Years” when he boasted about the brilliant success of his foreign policies.
All in all, the speech reminded me of a moment at the end of the 2000 Democratic Convention, when I was standing on the floor amidst the balloon drop, and a friend of mine who worked for Gore came up to me and said: “Whaddya think? Ground Rule Double?”
Like Gore’s 2000 speech, Bush’s effort tonight struck me as tactically successful, but strategically questionable. To stretch the baseball metaphor, it was a Ground Rule Double, and not a home run, because it went over the fence thanks to the peculiar dynamics of the home park. These dynamics revolved around a convention where Bush’s explanation of his record and agenda were held to the minimal standard associated with world-historical figures like Reagan and Churchill, who had bigger fish to fry than such trivial matters as keeping their countrymen employed or managing the aftermath of “liberation” struggles.
Lest we forget, Churchill lost his first post-war election, and Reagan left office before the messy residue of his policies could interfere with his generally successful legacy.
For all the triumphalism and rhetorical overkill of this convention, it’s still unlikely that a majority of Americans revere George W. Bush enough to give him a pass on his domestic or international policies, or his meagre plans for the future.
We’ll see what the polls say, but I still believe this election is John Kerry’s to lose. Bush needed a big rally in New York, but it’s not clear he’s got a lead, and it is clear he doesn’t have a lead that’s safe going into the late innings.

Steak and Sizzle

If the climate of hysteria at their convention is tempting some GOPers to become overconfident, it’s also driving some Democrats into unnecessary panic. I can’t count the number of people I’ve talked to this week who are beside themselves with frustration that KE04 isn’t sufficiently “fighting back” against the crap being thrown against the wall in New York. And at least among those old enough to remember, they invariably cite the example of the ’88 Dukakis campaign, which “just stood there” and let Lee Atwater and the boys tear them apart.
But aside from the need for “rapid response,” there were two other lessons to be learned from the Dukakis defeat, which ought to be kept in mind today.
The first is that you can’t always choose the issues landscape. The Duke’s strategists didn’t fail to respond to the attacks on their candidate because they were sluggish or stupid. They were in thrall to the idea that you should campaign on “your issues” and not “their issues.” When the elder Bush’s thugs went after Dukakis on defense or cultural issues, he invariably responded with his message of “good jobs at good wages,” on the theory that talking about defense and cultural issues would just play into their opponent’s strength. Suffice it to say it didn’t work.
I mention this point because I’m also hearing a lot of Democrats complain that Kerry set up the Republicans for this week’s assault-and-battery by talking too much about national security–“their issue”–instead of hammering away on health care and the economy–“our issues.” Now think about it, folks. Does anyone really think the GOP Convention was ever going to be about anything other than national security and the war on terrorism, no matter how much Democrats yelled about other issues? If the Democratic nominee had failed to talk about “their issues,” the assault would have been even worse. And if that nominee had not been a war hero with a reputation for toughness on national security, it would have been much, much worse. Aside from the guaranteed focus of the GOP on this issue, there’s also the small problem that the public cares about it as well. The Republicans may be fanning the flames of fear all right, but there was already a fire.
The final lesson of the Dukakis campaign that should be remembered right now is that how quickly and how aggressively you respond to attacks is less important than what you say. “Rapid response” doesn’t do much good unless the response itself is credible and compelling. You gotta have the steak, not just the sizzle. When Dukakis got around to responding to the Bush-Quayle attacks, his answers were too often lame-o. (Remember Mikey in the Tank? Remember how he handled Bernie Shaw’s Rape-of-Kitty hypothetical on the death penalty?) Serving up these lame-o responses faster or at a higher volume wouldn’t have done much good.
Sure, Kerry needs to respond quickly and aggressively, but when he does, he needs two things above all: (1) a series of crisp, one-sentence responses to all the “flip-flop” charges, and (2) a simple, compelling Fall Message (not just a slogan) that enables him to connect his responses to the broader set of issues that he wants to talk about and Bush can’t.
I’m pretty sure the KE04 folks understand this. The rest of us nervous Democrats should let them work it out and not pressure them into meaningless frenetic activity.

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 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.