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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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The War on Terror, Two Years After

It’s two years since terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and killed thousands of Americans. It’s an appropriate time to assess how Americans view the war or terror that has unfolded since then. Do they feel safer? Do they approve of how the Bush administration has prosecuted the war on terror? To the extent they don’t, what do they think should be done differently?
An extensive poll just released by the Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) provides some purchase on these questions.
First, do Americans feel safer than they did two years ago, in the wake of the terrorist attacks? Not really. Only 24 percent feel safer, compared to 28 percent who feel less safe and 48 percent who believe there hasn’t been much change. And when the question is framed simply in terms of whether Bush administration efforts to reduce terrorist attacks have made them feel safer, the response is still not very positive: 46 percent say those efforts have made them feel safer, while 53 percent say either that the efforts haven’t made much difference (45 percent) or actually feel the efforts have made them feel less safe (8 percent).
The public also feels that the US military presence in the Middle East is not making them safer. By 2:1 (64 percent to 32 percent), they believe that presence is increasing, not decreasing, the likelihood of attacks.
The poll also finds the public endorsing the idea that the Bush administration has been too assertive and uncooperative in its approach to the war on terror. Indeed, by 81 percent to 16 percent, the public says the more important lesson of September 11 is that “the US needs to work more closely with other countries to fight terrorism” rather than “the US needs to act on its own more to fight terrorism”. That’s up from a 61 percent to 34 percent split in the middle of 2002.
In addition, about four times as many Americans (54 percent) think the Bush administration has been too assertive in its relations with other countries than think it has been too cooperative (14 percent). And by almost 40 points (66 percent to 27 percent), the public believes the Bush administration should adopt a more cooperative attitude in its relations with other countries. Finally, when asked to evaluate the proper course for Bush administration efforts in the future, compared to what it has done in the past, the public endorses diplomatic/economic methods over military methods by 58 percent to 35 percent.
The PIPA poll also gave respondents a wide range of different approaches to the problem of terrorism and asked them to rate the approaches. The three approaches that were the most explicitly multilateral were among the ones that scored highest: setting up an international system to cut off funding to terrorists (79 percent in favor); setting up a UN database of terrorists to which all countries would contribute (76 percent); and working through the UN to strengthen international laws against terrorism and making sure UN members cooperate to enforce them (73 percent). Other highly rated choices were reducing US dependence on oil and putting pressure on the Saudi government to shut down terrorist groups (both 75 percent). In contrast, purely military approaches like overthrowing the government of Iran (30 percent) or Syria (21 percent) fared poorly.
It’s amazing how different the public perspective on pursuing the war on terror is from the Bush administration approach. It’s up to the Democrats, in a sense, to give public opinion its voice on these issues. We can be very sure the Republicans won’t.
September 11, 2003
posted 11:06 pm

When Even Republicans and Republican Polls Say Bush Is in Trouble, He’s Definitely in Trouble

Dana Milbank has an interesting article in The Washington Post today about Bush supporters in Florida who are starting to worry that the Iraq situation is eroding his political standing. When this fairly obvious fact is starting to penetrate the thick skulls of the folks who’ve drunk the GOP Kool-Aid, you know the issue is starting to bite.
Even Republican polls are catching the drift of things. A Winston Group/New Models poll for the Senate Republican conference has Bush’s approval rating down to 51 percent and Democrats ahead in a generic Senate ballot question by 6 points (46 percent to 40 percent). The same poll had Democrats behind Republicans by 3 points on May 15, before things really went south in Iraq.
Republicans are also starting to realize that even (especially?) a Dean candidacy won’t solve their problems. USA Today reported Tuesday on how Republican officials and Bush political advisors now admit they underestimated Howard Dean and consider him a potentially formidable political adversary. Apparently, Dean’s continued ability to mobilize political support and, especially, raise money is making Republicans think he wouldn’t be such an easy mark after all.
And Speaking of Howard Dean
Jusiper’s excellent four part series on “How Dean Can Win” the general election is now complete. The series is organized around replying to a July 22 DR post on problems with Dean’s electability and secondarily to a piece by Jonathan Chait in The New Republic that argues Dean would be a disaster for the Democrats.
DR wishes to commend Jusiper for the civilized tone in which they conducted their critique. DR doesn’t agree with all–or even most–of it, but he was mightily pleased to see political differences among Democrats, especially on the hot-button Dean issue, handled in this fashion.
So what’s wrong with what they said? On the social liberalism problem, they basically argue that, sure, Dean would have some problems here, but so would any Democrat (e.g., Kerry). They may be right about this, but DR still worries that the combination of Dean’s socially liberal/Vermonter profile with his strong antiwar stance is going to be difficult for a lot of swing voters to handle. Maybe one they could handle, but the two together is a level of liberalism that could drive a lot of voters away.
On the too antiwar, too soon problem, Jusiper accepts that Dean will not necessarily benefit from being consistent on the issue, since the public doesn’t vote on that basis. Therefore, even if opinion continues to turn against the war, Dean may still have a serious problem with his national security credentials. Jusiper acknowledges this, but believes Dean can finesse the issue by, for example, appearing with a bunch of generals who support his position. Could be, but there is considerable room for doubt here.
On the new voters are no substitute for swing voters problem, Jusiper accepts the argument completely, but argues Dean’s support is rapidly expanding from its initial hardcore and will continue to do so in the general election campaign toward just the kind of centrists and political independents you need to win the general. Maybe. Dean’s straight talk approach and nontraditional (for Democrats) views on some issues will clearly help, but the idea this will suffice to capture general election swing voters is more an assertion than a claim one can have much confidence in.
Of course, DR can’t prove the contrary either (we are all woefully short on real data at this point–though note that Kerry, not Dean, was the only declared Democratic candidate to beat Bush among independents in the most recent CNN/Time poll). So, let the debate continue and may we all adopt the civilized tone of the Jusiper discussion as it does.
September 10, 2003
posted 10:28 pm

A Faction Fight by Any Other Name Would Smell as Sweet

Mark Penn, the DLC’s and Joe Lieberman’s pollster, had an op-ed in The Washington Post on Sunday with the headline “Progressive Centrism“. Alert DR readers will recall that this is the phrase used in The Emerging Democratic Majority to refer to the unifying philosophy of the new Democratic coalition, of which the New Democrats are only one part.
So, is Mark Penn signing up? Unfortunately, when one reads past the headline (very possibly an editor’s idea, rather than Penn’s) it’s the same old same old. Clintonism as interpreted by Al From good. Joe Lieberman good. Gephardt and Kerry bad. Dean very bad. Only New Democrat philosophy can save party from meltdown worse than Mondale-McGovernism.
Are these things generated by computer or what? DR can only shake his muzzle sadly and hope the From-Lieberman-Penn wing of the party eventually gets tired of its relentless factional activity. But he’s not holding his breath.

Ronald Brownstein Lets W Have It

DR readers should point their browsers toward Ron Brownstein’s latest Los Angeles Times column and enjoy. While the intro of the piece is about W crying “Uncle” in Iraq (or should we say “Jacques and Gerhard”), the bulk of it is a devastating recounting how Bush has blown the budget sky-high, leaving no money for an array of highly necessary investments that Bush himself has said we need to make. From improving the military to beefing up homeland security to providing prescription drugs to helping the uninsured to spending on schools, there’s just no money there to do it. (Unless, of course, you jack up the deficit even more. But the deficit is already projected to hit $480 billion next year without any new spending.)
And all this for what? To provide “middle class tax relief”. Two big problems: (1) the Bush tax cuts overwhelmingly benefitted the rich, not the middle class; and (2) the need for new middle class tax relief was far from clear. According to a just-released CBO study cited by Brownstein, middle income families were already paying one-third less in taxes in the year 2000 (before the Bush tax cuts) than they were in 1979.
Brownstein recommends that Bush acknowledge that his tax cut agenda–as he just did with his Iraq policy–has serious problems and is in need of a course correction. That would be nice. But DR is definitely not holding his breath on this one.

Clark Round-Up

The last installment of the rousing Frank Foer-Noam Scheiber debate on Clark is here. Salon.com featured Eric Boehlert with a good general survey on Clark’s (maybe) candidacy and Garance Franke-Ruta with a very useful discussion of Clark’s “web warriors”, who are a varied and disputatious lot. Could these web warriors really jump-start a Clark candidacy, as some argue. DR has his doubts.

You Know Bush Is in Trouble, When Even He Admits It

Last night, Bush basically admitted things were going poorly in Iraq, that the US needed lots of help from other countries and that the Iraq occupation was going to cost a lot more money than he had previously said. That’s highly significant politically because, as Dan Balz put it in a good Washington Post analysis of Bush’s speech:
[Bush] is on the defensive over Iraq now, just as he is on the defensive at home over the sluggish economy, which continues to shed jobs despite the latest infusion of tax cuts. The irony is that, if there was anything White House officials and Republican leaders assumed, it was that Bush’s strength as a wartime leader would be a major political asset in his reelection campaign, offsetting persistent public concerns about his handling of the economy.
That may well continue to be the case, but only if the progress the president and other U.S. officials have promised in Iraq and the Middle East becomes a reality before too much longer. Whether Americans are ready for the kind of expansive commitment that the president described last night is an open question.
Just so, just so.
Here’s some evidence about just how open this question is. In a just-released ABC News poll, Bush’s approval rating on Iraq has sunk to 49 percent (with 47 percent disapproval), down 7 points since August 24. By almost 20 points (57 percent to 38 percent), the public now believes the number of casualties in Iraq is unacceptable, given the goals versus the costs of the war. And by 48 to 40 percent, the public now says the long term risk of terrorism to the US will increase as a result of the Iraq war. That’s a stark contrast to mid-April, when people believed by 2:1 that the war would decrease the long term risk of terrorism.
And here’s some evidence from the new CNN/Time poll about just how much political trouble W is in. In this poll, more independents–a rough proxy for swing voters–now disapprove of Bush’s job performance (49 percent) than approve (45 percent). By 48 percent to 42 percent, independents also believe Bush has done more to divide than unite the country. By 55 percent to 39 percent, these same voters do not believe the phrase “compassionate conservative” describes Bush. And twice as many independents say they definitely plan to vote against Bush (44 percent) than say they definitely plan to vote for him (22 percent). Wow.
Guess it’ll take more than earnestly looking into the cameras and invoking 9/11 to get out of this one.

Vote to Re-Elect Bush? Well…..No Thanks

Voters are less and less interested in re-electing President Bush. Check out these recent figures. The Zogby poll has just 40 percent saying he deserves re-election and 52 percent saying it’s time for someone new–a 12 point deficit for Bush, 9 points worse than he fared in mid-August. In the Ipsos/Cook Political Report poll, only 38 percent are willing to say they would definitely vote to re-elect Bush, while 36 percent would definitely vote for someone else and 24 percent would consider someone else. And, in the latest CNN/Time poll, a shockingly low 29 percent say they would definitely vote for Bush in ‘04, compared to 41 percent who say they would definitely vote against him (25 percent might vote for or against).
Why are voters losing enthusiasm for the President who, not so long ago, seemed politically invincible? It’s pretty simple. They think the economy is doing badly, the situation in Iraq is deteriorating and the country overall is in going in the wrong direction. Given this, American voters’ pragmatism (go with what works; reject what doesn’t) is now leading them away from Bush and making them less willing to cut him slack, simply because he performed well right after September 11.
Take the direction of the country. The latest Democracy Corps poll has only 36 percent of likely voters saying the country is going in the right direction, while 54 percent say it is off on the wrong track (59 percent of independents). That 18 point gap between right direction and wrong track is triple the gap observed by the Democracy Corps in late July.
Take the economy. It should come as no surprise people are dissatisfied, given the most recent Labor Department jobs report that showed the economy shedding 93,000 jobs in August, 437,000 short of the administration’s own projections for the month. The economy has lost 2.7 million jobs since Bush took office, 600,000 since the beginning of the year and 225,000 since the Bush’s latest tax cut package was passed in late May. (The basic facts are in the invaluable Job Watch feature from the Economic Policy Institute, which DR highly recommends.)
No wonder that 55 percent now say they want to go in a different direction on the economy, compared to 39 percent who want to continue in Bush’s direction. And no wonder that voters now favor the Democrats over the Republicans on the economy by a healthy 15 points.
Take the situation in Iraq and national security. While Bush still retains a significant advantage on general national security concerns, even that advantage is eroding rapidly. For example, the Republicans famously had a 40 point advantage over the Democrats in November, 2002 on the issue of keeping America strong. That’s largely why they did so well in the ‘02 election. But now that advantage has more than cut in half, down to 16 points. Intriguingly, this is exactly the same Republican advantage registered by a Democracy Corps poll right before 9/11.
And when it comes to foreign policy, the Democrats have not only made gains, they are approaching parity. The Republican advantage over the Democrats on foreign policy is now only 6 points and it is dead even between continuing in Bush’s direction on foreign policy or going in a significantly different direction. It is also about even between continuing in Bush’s direction on foreign policy or going in a different direction on respect for the US in the world and close to even (4 point Bush advantage) on relations with countries around the world. And on the specific issue of Iraq, where Bush’s policies once commanded such high support, there is now a large group of Americans (41 percent) who would prefer to go in a different direction, rather than stay the course with Bush.
Of course, the Democrats still have much work to do in the national security area to make their critique stick (for example, by 30 points, voters say they want to continue in Bush’s direction on fully funding homeland security, despite the well-documented fact that this area has been dramatically underfunded by the administration). In this regard, the Democracy Corps memo, “Passing the National Security Threshhold“, has much useful advice for Democrats. But DR has said for a long time that if the Democrats could cut the GOP’s advantage on national security in half and open up a substantial lead on the economy, they had an excellent chance of knocking off Bush in ‘04. Well, we’re there.

The Clark Debate Continues

Noam Scheiber of The New Republic has an interesting post today in his ongoing debate with Frank Foer over the viability of a Wesley Clark candidacy. He argues that Clark cannot get the nomination because: (a) unlike Dean, he needs the party establishment to fall into line behind his candidacy, but they’re unlikely to do so because of all their other commitments to candidates still in the race; and (b) unlike Dean, he has no strategy designed to generate liberal support which is so central to the Democratic party nominating process. So he can’t replace Dean as the liberal candidate, but he’s poorly positioned to be the anti-Dean
And maybe that’s not so bad, says Scheiber, since who knows how good a campaigner he’d be anyway. More important, it’s Dean, not Clark (or any of the other candidates), who seems to have a handle on the real challenge of the Democratic primary process: generating liberal enthusiasm and support in the primaries to get the nomination, but doing it in such a way (through tone, rhetoric, etc.) that it’s possible to tack toward moderate positions later to win the general. (Note to Dean campaign: this appears to be some sort of Dean endorsement, though perhaps not exactly the kind you were looking for).
For more on Clark, see the excellent profile of him by Josh Green in the latest issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Better than anything else DR has read, it gives one a sense of how Clark might come off in a campaign–both good and bad.

The Dean Debate Continues and Continues

DR recommends the unfolding four part (!) series on Jusiper, defending Dean’s electability against people like….well, like DR. Its exciting conclusion is due Friday, but, for now, you can read part 3 here and then navigate back to parts 2 and 1. Good stuff. DR will have a comment or two once the series is complete.

Listen Up Democrats: Time to Think Big!

Matthew Miller, one of DR’s favorite commentators, has a new book, The 2 Percent Solution: Fixing America in Ways Liberals and Conservatives Can Love, just reviewed in The Washington Post, and an op-ed in today’s New York Times on the general themes of his book. This quote from the op-ed gives you a flavor of what he’s getting at:
“What happened to the Democratic Party’s willingness to take on the problems facing ordinary people? Since 1994, when the Clinton health care plan imploded in a fiasco that cost the party control of Congress, Democrats have been too scared to think big again. Republicans, emboldened by this timidity, have reacted by pushing harder on their traditional priorities of cutting taxes and regulations. As a result, a commitment to two longstanding American ideals —— equal opportunity and a minimally decent life for citizens of a wealthy nation —— has been lost.”
Tell it like it is, brother Miller. Matt also has a nice website you might want to visit that includes an archive of his excellent columns.