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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Remember How Foreign Policy Was Supposed To Be Bush’s Strong Suit?

And how only the economy could really drag him down? Well, the economy’s still dragging him down (his approval rating on the economy is a dismal 41 percent with 52 percent disapproval), but now his ratings on foreign policy and Iraq are getting almost as bad.
In the latest CBS News poll, just 47 percent approve of his handling of foreign policy, while 44 percent disapprove (independent voters, a proxy for the coveted swing voters Bush needs to get re-elected, give him an even worse rating: 39 percent approval to 47 disapproval). And, for the first time, his approval rating on the situation in Iraq is more negative than positive, 47 percent disapproval to 46 percent approval (independents are more negative, giving him 50 percent disapproval to 38 percent approval).
Maybe that invasion, which always had huge substantive problems, was also a dumb idea politically.
Other findings underscore the precariousness of the Bush administration’s current position. By almost 3:1 (64 percent to 22 percent), the public doesn’t believe the administration has yet developed a clear plan for rebuilding Iraq. That’s a big shift since late April when the public was split down the middle on this question.
The public has also now shifted to the view that the result of the war with Iraq was not worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq (47 percent to 43 percent). And, again, among independents, the judgement is even more negative: 50 percent feel that the result of the war wasn’t worth the cost, compared to 41 percent who think it was.
As for Bush’s $87 billion request for additional funds to rebuild Iraq, the public is overwhelmingly opposed to spending this money (66 percent to 26 percent). They tend to believe that spending this money will mean cuts in spending on programs such as education and health care (48 percent), rather than affordable without such cuts (37 percent). And, of three options presented to the public to pay for the rebuilding of Iraq, eliminating the recent tax cuts is the only one that seems remotely salable politically (53 percent disapproval). The other two options, increasing the deficit and cutting spending on domestic programs receive stratospheric disapproval ratings of 72 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
Your move, George.

Can John Kerry Turn It Around?

The answer provided by David Kusnet, in his excellent article of the same name in Salon.com, is an unequivocal “maybe”. Kusnet rehearses the ups and downs of the Kerry campaign and is very good on the shifting constellation of forces within his campaign. Kusnet plausibly argues that Kerry may have misunderstood, from the beginning, the anger against Bush brewing among rank-and-file Democrats. He less plausibly argues that Kerry is now getting past that misunderstanding and may finally be coming up with a compelling message after many months of drifting (it appears to have something to do with shared sacrifice, though DR can’t say he completely understands what this new message is supposed to be).
At any rate, the article convinced DR he should keep an open mind about Kerry in the months ahead. On the other hand, he still won’t be surprised to see him go down in flames fairly early.

Oh That Wes Clark Is So Dreamy!

Especially if your dream is beating George W. Bush in November, 2004. Too bad he didn’t give a better announcement speech, but presumably this is something he can work on.
As Clark starts his campaign, here are some things to watch out for. Report back to DR when you have the answers to all questions.

  • money: how much and how fast?
  • campaign staff: which ones and how good?
  • the press: will he be comfortable with them or have an adversary relationship?
  • domestic policy positions: can he develop credible ones fast?
  • bigfoot Democrats: how many and how important?
  • blacks: is Charlie Rangel really with him and who else?
  • unions: will McEntee back him and are there any others?
  • Dean supporters: will nervous Dean supporters head for Clark as the electable alternative?
  • Kerry supporters: will unenthusiastic Kerry supporters (are there any other kind?) desert his sinking ship for Clark?
  • undecideds: can Clark convince them he’s the guy to beat Bush?

Useful reading on the Clark question: David Greenberg’s piece in Slate on “how generals get elected president“. Greenberg’s bottom line: “[Clark] has mastered the two historical requirements: He doesn’t act as if he needs the job, and he doesn’t act as if he wants war.”

The South? Who Needs ‘Em!

That’s kind of the flavor of John Harwood’s piece in the Wall Street Journal, where he argues “Democrats’ Woes in Dixie Hurt Case for Edwards, Clark“. Actually, Harwood has it wrong about the effect on the case for Clark, which mostly hinges on his ability to attract swing voters outside the south, rather than his ability to carry Arkansas or similar southern states.
But he is right about the electoral math. With the exception of Florida, Democrats need a northern, not a southern, strategy that will build on the 260 electoral votes they have captured in three successive presidential elections and extend their majority to lower midwestern, southwestern and other contested states outside the south. Of course, it’s good to be competitive in some southern states to tie up Republican resources and pick up the odd victory, but the Democrats don’t need those states. Their needs lie elsewhere and Harwood is correct to highlight this.

The Mystery of John Edwards

Ah, he started out with such promise. But it’s hard to miss the odor of lightly browned toast coming from his campaign these days. Garance Franke-Ruta and Jason Zengerle do a nice job dissecting this mysterious transformation in their online New Republic debate. Alexander Bolton contributes an article to Salon.com on “Sunset for the Golden Boy” addressing some of the same themes and William Saletan of Slate glumly admits Edwards doesn’t seem to have much of a chance but “[the Democrats] should at least run on his message”. Saletan makes a convincing case that some of Edwards’ themes would indeed serve a Democrat well in a general election contest against Bush.
But that Democrat ain’t gonna be Edwards. He should have stayed in the Senate. Darn it.

And Those Bad Bush Poll Numbers Just Keep on Coming!

The latest bad polling news for the Bushies is contained in a just-released Democracy Corps poll (be sure to check out the very nice slide presentation). Perhaps the most interesting findings are comparisons between public opinion before and after Bush’s recent Iraq speech requesting $87 billion more for the occupation and between public opinion today and before 9/11.
Start with the pre-speech/post-speech comparison. DR has pointed out previously that this speech seemed to go over like a lead balloon. Here’s more confirmation. Before the speech, 50 percent thought Bush was honest with Americans about the dangers and threats Iraq posed before the war; after the speech the same 50 percent thought so. Much worse, before the speech, by 50 percent to 44 percent, the public said they could trust what Bush is saying about WMDs in Iraq; after the speech that flipped to 53 percent saying they couldn’t trust what he said and 43 percent who said they could. In addition, before the speech, people already thought, by a margin of 4 points, that Bush didn’t have a plan to win the peace and bring the troops home; after the speech that margin widened to 12 points. Finally, on the key question of whether the war in Iraq was worth the cost of US lives and dollars, before the speech a narrow majority of the public (51 percent to 42 percent) said the war was worth these costs; after the speech that narrow majority turned into a even narrower plurality (just 49 percent to 45 percent).
It’s been remarked that Bush’s poll ratings in most respects seem to be returning to about what they were prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s true and in some cases they’re actually worse. The public is now 10 points less likely to think Bush is honest and trustworthy; 7 points less likely to think he is moderate, not extreme, 6 points less likely to think he is for working and middle class families and 5 points less likely to think he “cares about people like you”. In addition, the public is 12 points more likely to think he has a go-it-alone policy that hurts our relations with our allies.
Similarly, when comparing the ratings on which parties are trusted to do a better job on the issues, Democrats now have the same leads or better that they had prior to 9/11 and Republicans are not doing much better today than they did then. Democrats are favored by 35 points on the environment today (33 points before 9/11), by 26 points on Medicare (26 points previously), by 24 points on health care (21 previously), by 20 points on retirement and social security (16 previously), by 20 points on prescription drugs (22 previously), by 20 points on the federal budget and deficits (just 3 previously), by 12 points on the economy (3 previously) and by 11 points on education (7 previously). For the Republicans, they are favored by 6 points today on taxes (but were favored by 12 points before 9/11) and by 22 points on keeping America strong (but they were running a 16 point lead even before 9/11).
The conclusion is inescapable. Much of the Bush’s political capital from 9/11 has been dissipated. More than anyone would have thought a year ago, the 2004 election seems likely to be fought on the actual merits and demerits of the entire Bush presidency, not just the two months after 9/11. And, in DR’s opinion, that’s pretty bad–extremely bad–news for Bush.

Take Two Clark Bars and Call Me in the Morning?

David Brooks reported today in his New York Times column that Howard Dean was the consensus choice among Republican consultants as the guy they’d most like to see run against Bush in the ‘04 election. Their reasoning: Dean can get the Democratic base, but not the swing voters he’ll need.
Michael Wolff of New York Magazine takes this familiar analysis one step further and provides a structural basis for Dean’s problem that goes beyond his positions and profile. Wolff argues that Dean’s mastery of internet fundraising has a close parallel to McGovern’s mastery of direct mail fundraising in his 1972 campaign for the Democratic nomination. McGovern had, and Dean has, a first mover advantage in applying an available technology to targeted political fundraising; McGovern had, and Dean is having, great success generating money from the targeted efforts, which produces momentum which leads to more money, and so on. Wolff’s worry: like McGovern, this has little to do with reaching swing voters and everything to do with pumping up a targeted portion of the Democratic base and, like McGovern, this will make it difficult to win a general election.
Brooks’ case is oversimplified and Wolff’s case is overstated. But both have enough truth to them to worry DR quite a bit—and certainly to keep him from drinking that big glass of Dean Kool-Aid people keep putting in front of him.
If only there were a candidate who was anti-war, but still credible as commander-in-chief; willing to go after Bush, but less likely to alienate swing voters; able to generate enthusiasm, but not dependent on a limited demographic slice of the Democratic party like….well, like Wesley Clark.
Who now, it appears, is going to run. For a little inside baseball on how Clark’s campaign might shape up, see this post by the Daily Kos. For some intelligent commentary on why Clark might be able to develop momentum, see this post by Josh Marshall. For some of the many reasons why a Clark candidacy might fizzle out pretty fast, see this debate between Frank Foer and Noam Scheiber of The New Republic and some of DR’s own commentary.
Among the many interesting things to watch here will be Clark’s ability to peel off Dean supporters who have harbored doubts about their man’s ability to beat Bush, as well as collect Kerry supporters who had thought him the most electable candidate because of his military background, but now find him–literally–outranked. The latter seems particularly plausible, since the Kerry campaign appears lost and without energy at this point
Stay tuned and don’t drink any Kool-Aid for awhile, OK?
September 16, 2003
posted 10:40 pm

Bush’s First Sub-50 Approval Rating!

And it’s even in a Republican poll!! (DR doesn’t count the recent Zogby sub-50 reading, because they ask the approval question differently.) In the just-released Winston Group/New Models poll for the House GOP conference, W’s approval rating clocks in at 49 percent, with 46 percent disapproval. How sweet it is.
The poll also gives the Democrats a 5 point lead (45 percent to 40 percent) in a generic Congressional ballot question. If Karl Rove wasn’t nervous before, he might be starting to break a sweat.

More on That Post Poll

Yesterday, DR reviewed the latest Washington Post/ABC poll, which had a lot of very interesting findings in it. Jusiper also has some useful comments on the poll, highlighting Bush’s anomalously high approval ratings on education (56 percent) and the environment (51 percent). Jusiper is right to flag these ratings (though they don’t exactly mean that the public “favors” Bush on these issues), because they suggest missed Democratic opportunities. These are issues where the public tends to favor Democrats over Republicans by wide margins and where the Bush administration has performed miserably. So, how come his ratings in these areas aren’t in the tank along with his economy, health care and budget ratings?
Basically because the public doesn’t yet associate the administration’s failures in these areas with Bush personally. That’s work that needs to be done. By rights, Bush should be carrying net negative ratings in both these areas and with a bit of effort DR thinks we can get him there. Leave no Bush rating behind!

So Does the Public Really Think Saddam Was Behind 9/11?

Depends on how you ask the question. As reported in a recent Washington Post story, when asked whether it was likely Saddam “was personally involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks”, 69 percent said it was very or somewhat likely.
But that figure’s pretty soft. A much better question fielded by the Program on International Policy Attitudes asked for the “best description of the relationship between the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein and the terrorist group al-Qaeda”. Here are the responses: 7 percent said there was no connection at all; 31 percent said a few al-Quada individuals visited Iraq or had contact with Iraqi officials; 35 percent said Iraq gave substantial support to al-Qaeda but was not involved in the 9/11 attacks; and just 21 percent endorsed the idea that Iraq was directly involved in carrying out the 9/11 attacks.
In other words, only about a fifth of Americans really seem to believe that Saddam was involved in 9/11. That level of belief is bad enough, Lord knows, since there’s zero evidence that he was, despite the pronouncements of the apparently completely mad Dick Cheney. But it’s better than 7 in 10.

Public Just Says No to Iraq Authorization

On Friday, DR covered the latest Gallup poll, which says, among other things, that the public opposes Congressional authorization of the $87 billion requested for Iraq by President Bush. Today comes confirmation of this opposition. The new Washington Post/ABC poll has the public opposing Bush’s request by a lopsided 61 percent to 38 percent ( a larger majority than the Gallup poll, possibly because the Post question mentions the previous $79 billion allocated for Iraq and its reconstruction). It’s now clear that Bush’s speech calling for the new authorization was, shall we say, a “miserable failure”. Indeed, in another slap in the face to Bush’s approach, the public favors eliminating Bush’s recent tax cuts (41 percent) over cutting spending (28 percent) or increasing the deficit (19 percent), to pay for the authorization if it is passed.
Also consistent with the Gallup poll, Bush’s approval rating on the situation in Iraq is now just 52 percent, down an amazing 23 points since the end of April. (Oddly, his overall approval rating in this poll, unlike the Gallup poll, is still doing its Wile E. Coyote running-on-air act and remains roughly unchanged in the last month.) And on a wide range of domestic issues, his ratings are truly abysmal. They include: the economy at 42 percent approval/56 percent disapproval; creating jobs at 39 percent/55 percent disapproval; the federal budget at 38 approval/57 percent disapproval; prescription drugs for seniors at 35 percent disapproval/54 percent disapproval; and the cost, availability and coverage of health insurance at 32 percent approval/61 percent disapproval. Those are some pretty bad ratings and especially significant because they include three of four issues the public deems most important to their vote in the coming year: the economy; creating jobs; and the federal budget. (The other issue in the top four is education, where Bush has a better, but hardly stellar, rating of 56 percent.)
Other notably bad domestic ratings include Social Security at 43 percent approval/46 percent disapproval and taxes at 48 percent approval/48 percent disapproval. The latter figure is worth emphasizing since it is the first time disapproval has been as high as approval on Bush’s signature domestic issue.
In the like father, like son department, the public now strongly believes, by 52 percent to 9 percent, that most Americans today are worse off, rather than better off, compared to when Bush took office. The analagous figures for Bush I, from October of 1991, were 48 percent to 7 percent.
Finally, for the first time since 9/11 more people think Bush doesn’t understand “the problems of people like you” than think he does (51 percent to 48 percent). And in a nice bit of symmetry, 62 percent now believe large business corporations have too much influence on the Bush administration and 62 percent believe “people like you” have too little.
Uh-oh for the Bushies. Sounds like the public’s catching on to them.

Bush’s Approval Rating Goes Galluping Away

DR has highlighted for a while Bush’s declining approval ratings over the course of the summer in most public polls. Gallup, however, has been somewhat of an exception. Here are the Gallup approval ratings from June 10 to August 26: 62, 63, 61, 62, 59, 58, 60, 59. Not much movement and DR doesn’t pretend to understand why this was so.
But that just changed. Bush’s approval rating in the Gallup poll released yesterday has plunged to 52 percent. Perhaps it’s like the coyote in the roadrunner cartoons who suddenly realizes he’s running on air and starts falling.
And this poll is just chock-a-block with other bad news for the Bushies. Bush’s approval rating on the economy is 45 percent with 53 percent disapproval. His approval rating on foreign affairs is now just 52 percent approval/45 percent disapproval for a +7 net rating. That’s down from a +13 rating in late August. And his rating on the Iraq situation is now 51 percent approval/47 percent disapproval for a +4 rating, down from +16 over the same period.
Reflecting this unease with developments in Iraq, just 40 percent say the Bush administration has a clear plan for handling the Iraq situation, compared to 59 percent who do not. That’s a -19 point margin against the Bush administration having a clear plan, almost double the -10 margin on the same question in late August. And a direct question on whether Congress should or should not authorize an additional $87 billion in government spending for Iraq and the war on terrorism actually yields a modest majority (51 percent to 46 percent) against such an authorization.
And it’s getting to be a very grumpy public out there. Only 40 percent say they’re satisfied with the way things are going in the country today and 58 percent say they’re dissatisfied. That’s a net response of -18 points, up from -6 points on the same question in early August.
Given all this, it’s no wonder Bush is now performing so poorly in trial heats for ‘04 against a generic Democrat. This poll has him at 46 percent against 43 percent for an unnamed Democrat. That’s a slim 3 point margin for Bush, down from a 12 point edge just two weeks ago.
No doubt about it. The 2004 election should be real horse race. Stay tuned.