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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

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Now That You Mention It, I’m Starting To Have My Doubts About This Bush Guy….

On Saturday, DR reviewed some new public opinion data that suggested the public is starting to sour on President Bush, including their sense of personal trust in, and favorability toward, Bush, which is key to his political support. 
Today, DR is pleased to report that additional data released over the weekend by CNN/Time confirm this trend.  In the CNN/Time poll, respondents were asked: “Do you think George W. Bush is a leader you can trust or do you have some doubts and reservations?”  At this point, more say they have doubts and reservations (51 percent) than say he’s a leader they can trust (47 percent).  That’s a 19 point swing against Bush since the end of March, when the public said they trusted Bush by a 15 point margin (56 percent to 41 percent).  And it’s a 30 point swing against Bush since late January, 2002 when the public said they trusted him by a 26 point margin (62 percent to 36 percent).  In fact, Bush’s status on this trust question today is basically the same as it was in May, 2001, before September 11th happened and the Bush presidency was suddenly transformed. 
And wait, there’s more!  The poll has Bush’s approval rating at just 55 percent, a decline of 8 points since late May.  And his approval rating among swing-voting independents is down to 50 percent with 44 percent disapproval.  In terms of specific areas, only 55 percent now he’s doing a good job handling the situation in Iraq, sharply down from 69 percent in late May.  And his ratings on most domestic issues have become not just low, but more negative than positive.  On handling the economy, 52 percent say he’s doing a poor job, compared with 42 percent who say he’s doing a good job.  On handling unemployment, it’s 54 percent poor/36 percent good; on handling the budget deficit, it’s 52 percent poor/36 percent good; on handling health care, it’s 47 percent poor/42 percent good; and on Medicare, it’s 42 percent poor/40 percent good. 
The one domestic exception is education, where 51 percent say he’s doing a good job—hardly overwhelming, but considerably higher than the 37 percent who say he’s doing a poor job.  In DR’s view, this number represents a missed opportunity for the Democrats.  Given the havoc that state budget cutbacks are playing with education funding and Bush’s refusal to do anything more for public education other than to legislate tough standards (despite the promises that he made during the 2000 campaign and accompanying the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act), there is a devastating case to be made against his record in this area.  But Democrats in general and Democratic Presidential candidates in particular have been unaccountably reluctant to put much emphasis on the education issue.  DR suggests they wake up and start wheeling out the heavy artillery on this one.
On Iraq, the poll makes clear that the public’s view of the Iraq campaign and its aftermath is becoming more jaundiced by the day.  In late March, 52 percent described the military campaign as successful (as opposed to unsuccessful or somewhere in between); that number is now down to 39 percent.  More than two-fifths (41 percent) now believe Bush deliberately misled the public about Iraq having nuclear materials in order to gain support for the war.  And, critically, the public is now about evenly split about whether the war in Iraq was worth the toll taken in American lives and other costs (49 percent say it was; 45 percent say it wasn’t).  That’s down from a 26 point margin (59 percent to 33 percent) in favor of the war being worth the costs in late March. 
And the public is not optimistic about how things are likely to evolve in Iraq.  They overwhelmingly believe (67 percent) that either attacks will continue at their current level (42 percent) or actually increase (25 percent).  Just 27 percent believe the attacks will eventually stop.
And, oh, the public did not take it kindly when Bush taunted the Iraqi opposition with his “Bring ‘em on” statement.  By 55 percent to 36 percent, they thought this particular Bushism was a bad idea. 
Pretty soon they may conclude the whole Bush presidency was a bad idea.  In fact, that sentiment is becoming more and more common already.  The poll shows just 50 percent saying they would be very or somewhat likely to vote to re-elect Bush, compared to 46 percent who say they would be very or somewhat unlikely to vote for him.  Intriguingly, the number (36 percent) who say they would be very unlikely to vote for him is actually higher than the number (33 percent) who say they would be very likely to support him.
The supposedly invulnerable Bush is starting to look distinctly vulnerable.  And that brings a smile to this donkey’s face.

Is the Public Souring on President Bush?

It’s fair to say that GOP fortunes, in general, and Bush’s political fortunes, in particular, are pretty closely tied to Bush’s personal popularity.  That is, many voters who aren’t enthusiastic about, or flat-out disagree with, many of his policies nevertheless support the President because they believe he’s been a strong leader, can be trusted and is–for want of a better term–just a good guy.
Evidence has been accumulating that this perception is changing.  In a late June Gallup poll, the president’s personal high standing on a number of important indicators was already sinking to unimpressive levels. Just 50 percent claimed that he has a clear plan for solving the country’s problems, compared to 47 percent who thought that he doesn’t. Only 54 percent said that he is a person they admire (down ten points since the beginning of May), while 45 percent say he is not a person they admire. And 57 percent said he cares about the needs of “people like you” (down eight points since early April), compared to 42 percent who said he doesn’t.
A just-released Zogby poll suggests this souring in Bush’s popularity is real.  The poll has Bush’s job performance at just 53 percent positive and 46 percent negative (note: Zogby measures job performance differently than most other polls, so his figures are not strictly comparable with theirs).  And his rating on various domestic issues is truly abysmal: 36 percent positive/61 percent negative on health care; 33 percent positive/66 percent negative on jobs and the economy; and 31 percent positive/65 percent negative on the environment.  Even his rating on taxes is more negative (54 percent) than positive (45 percent).
But it’s not just job ratings that are taking a hit.  The poll also asked respondents whether they have a favorable view of Bush as a person.  That number is now down to only 57 percent with 42 percent unfavorable.  That’s a drop of 9 points in personal favorability since late January.
Probably not coincidentally, for the first time in this poll, more likely voters say it’s time for someone new in the White House (47 percent) than say Bush should be re-elected (46 percent).  And in another question, Bush just nudges out a generic Democrat by 48 percent to 43 percent in a hypothetical matchup for the Presidency. 
John Zogby offers this assessment of the possible effects of a decline in Bush’s personal popularity:
What has been propping up the President in the past few months is his personal favorability rating. To me, what is most ominous is this alone has slipped 9 points in the past month. If he cannot count on a large majority of Americans to like him personally, this could spell doom for his re-election hopes because he has little support for his overall performance and how he is rated on the issues.
That’s it in a nutshell.  If Americans decide they like the guy much less than they thought they did, then they’ll be much less inclined to overlook the various ways in which they disagree with him.  And that  means trouble for both him and the GOP.  Stay tuned.

Take Two Dean Articles and Call Me in the Morning

The good doctor is on trial today in the pages of The New Republic.  Can feisty Ho-Ho (if nominated) actually beat George W. Bush and become President of these United States?  Yes, he can! says Jonathan Cohn.  Don’t be ridiculous, says Jonathan Chait

DR urges you to read both of them and then pick your Jonathan.  Both are fine articles.  Cohn’s is possibly the best defense of Dean’s electability I’ve seen.  Chait’s, if a bit over-the-top at times, raises so many good questions about Dean’s electoral viability that honest Dean supporters will be forced to slow down for a minute and ask themselves: gee, could this guy really, really beat Bush? 
DR doesn’t entirely agree with either article, but he is inclined to think Cohn is more wrong than right and Chait is more right than wrong. 
Cohn’s case is that Dean’s centrism is real and misunderstood and that his appeal to liberals is based mostly on the fact that “he’s as angry as they are” and tells it like it is about Bush and the sins of his administration.  Cohn further argues that Dean’s blunt-speaking persona will be just the ticket with voters, including swing voters, who are looking for someone who speaks like a human being and tells you what they really think in clear, short sentences.  That authenticity, Cohn argues, will be the key to reaching the political center, even on contentious issues like the Iraq war (where, he reminds us, Dean’s consistent stance against the war looks less far-out with every day that goes by).
Well, maybe.  As Cohn himself cogently puts it:

[V]oters will quite properly demand that presidential candidates demonstrate their ability to protect national security. That’s a difficult challenge for any governor lacking foreign policy or personal military experience. Make that governor a New Englander, load him up with a few cultural positions (such as pro-civil unions) that some voters interpret as “soft,” then have him oppose a war that was widely popular at the time, and what you have–it would seem–is a recipe for disaster. 

I’m not sure Cohn ever really extricates Dean from these problems in his article.  And Chait’s article sticks this knife in and twists it.  The article, ominously (biblically?) subtitled “Howard Dean and the Tempting of the Democrats”, systematically marches through all the ways (like the ones Cohn mentions and then some) in which Dean can easily be portrayed as out-of-step and too liberal for centrist general election voters.  As Chait points out, Dean’s heterodoxy on issues like guns and the death penalty is unlikely to help him that much in the general because voters do not carefully examine each candidate’s individual positions.  Instead, they go for a broad impression of the man, which Rove and Co. will be happy to supply based on the abundant raw material that a Dean candidacy will supply. 
There are some problems with Chait’s article.  He spends too much time upbraiding Dean for being unfair to his fellow Democrats (quit lying about their records!)  And he never really deals with the energy and mobilization issue, which is surely a strong point of the Dean candidacy.  Any Democratic candidate will need energy and mobilization in abundance to be successful and Chait, shall we say, doesn’t really give the devil his due on this one.
No matter.  It’s a good article and so is Cohn’s.  Read ‘em both and you’ll be up to speed as the Great Dean Debate continues.

54 Percent Say: ”I Wouldn’t Trust Him Further Than I Could Throw Him”

No, not George W. Bush (at least not yet).  Instead this truly fine poll result refers to the British public’s view of Tony Blair, reported in an article by Glenn Frankel in today’s Washington Post.  It was Blair, of course, who today told the US Congress that history will absolve him and Bush (Fidel, are you listening?) even if nothing whatsoever is ever found in the WMD department.  In short, even when we’re wrong, we’re right.
Tony, is it any wonder the British public, well, wouldn’t trust you further than they can throw you?  Sad, sad days for Mr. Blair.  For Blair-watchers, DR recommends
this article by John Lancaster in The London Review of Books, which explains how Blair wound up going off the rails on the Iraq issue, after being so sure-footed politically for so many years.

The Bush Lies Watch Continues!

So much material, so little time!  But be sure to check out the Walter Pincus article in The Washington Post today, which points out just how crucial those 16 words on Niger uranium were to Bush’s unraveling case for going to war.  Then read Michael Kinsley’s hilarious column “…Or More Lies from the Usual Suspects?”, which advances the radical concept that the President should actually be held responsible for the words he himself spoke (!).  Finish up by visiting Josh Marshall’s site for the truly painstaking deconstruction of administration nonsense that the press is still too lazy or craven to do (or too embarassed by the dumb stuff they said before the war, as Josh documents in this post). 

The Dean Debate Continues!

Yesterday TAPPED responded to DR’s response to TAPPED’s response to John Judis’ Salon.com article about Dean’s (non)electability.  It appears we’ve reached unity on some the problems likely to beset a Dean general election candidacy  As TAPPED puts it:
[There is] much that is appealing about Dean, but we’d have to agree that his ability to resonate with moderate voters in center-right swing states will probably be the acid test of whether his straight talk can overcome his geographic undesirability.
Exactly.  That is where the case for Dean has to be made.  An interesting contribution along these lines was made recently in &c., The New Republic‘s blog.  The post is essentially a response to a column by The Los Angeles Times‘ Ron Brownstein, where Brownstein argues that Ho-Ho’s fervent denunciations of Bush play great with Democrats but are probably frightening away centrist voters Democrats need in the general election. 
&c. reasonably points out that any successful candidate for the Democratic nomination winds up frightening at least some centrist voters, due to the nature of the process: you’re marketing yourself to Democrats not the general electorate.  The question therefore is not whether there’s damage but how much there is and how fixable that damage is.  &c. argues that Dean’s liberalism is more tonal (he let’s ’em have it!) than based on policy (many of his policies–though not Iraq, which is a big exception–are relatively conservative for a Democrat).  And that’s good because tonal liberalism is much easier to modify for the general than policy liberalism, which tends to box you in with commitments that are hard to keep if you want to appeal to moderates. 
&c. argues further that there are aspects of Dean’s aggressive tone that could even help with some moderate voters, especially white men, since many of these voters see Democrats as hopelessly wimpy.  Dean may be many things, but wimpy he’s not!
There are problems with this argument, but it is crisply put and again focuses us on the central question that has to be convincingly addressed to make the case for Dean’s electability: can he really get those moderate voters in the swing states–and can he get them better than the other Democratic candidates? 
Well, maybe more on this tomorrow.  DR’s spies tell him that The New Republic‘s two Jonathans (Cohn/pro and Chait/con) will weigh in tomorrow on the Dean electability question and they’ll no doubt have new and interesting things to say. 

Bush’s Other Big Problem

Bush continues to stumble and just flat-out make stuff up in response to questions about the bogus Niger uranium intelligence prominently featured in the State of the Union address.  His latest howlers: CIA’s doubts about the intelligence were after the SOTU; and, incredibly, we invaded Iraq because Saddam wouldn’t let in the weapons inspectors!  As The Washington Post story on this drily observed, “The president’s assertion that the war began because Iraq did not admit inspectors appeared to contradict the events leading up to the war this spring”.   
But the very same edition of the Post that had that story on the front page above the fold also had two stories about economic and budget woes, also on the front page, also above the fold: “Budget Woes Trickle Down: Hard-Hit State and Local Governments Say Bush and Congress Left Them to Make Cuts, Raise Taxes” and “Budget Deficit May Surpass $450 Billion“. 
The Bush administration is awash in these and other economic problems.  And they’re unlikely to go away anytime soon.  A just-released Gallup poll analysis points out that “improvement in consumer sentiment has not continued to gain momentum as the summer has progressed”.  The reason?  Consumers need to see some real economic improvement and so far they haven’t seen it–in fact, more people now say the economy is getting worse (47 percent) than say it is getting better (43 percent).
In the same poll, half the country now disapproves of Bush job performance on the economy and 58 percent say he is not paying enough attention to the economy.  Moreover, in just-released Ipsos/Cook Political Report data, voters age 50 and over, whose turnout tends to be relatively high, are particularly negative about Bush’s economic job performance (53 percent disapproval to 44 percent approval). 
Not a pretty picture for the Bushies.  And how about this one: Bush’s “hard re-elect” number in the Ipsos data (those who would definitely vote to re-elect him) is just 41 percent. 
Looks like the Democrats are finally getting some running room.

Is Dean Electable?

That’s really the question, isn’t it?  Now that his boosters are getting over the euphoria of his fundraising numbers and his indisputable status as one of the top tier candidates in the Democratic race, they are (to their credit) starting to engage on the issue of his electability.  Yes, indeed, Dean has a reasonable chance of capturing the Democratic nomination.  But does he have a reasonable chance of actually beating Bush?
John Judis’ piece in Salon.com argues: not really; in fact, he’ll probably get clobbered.  The essence of Judis’ argument is that, while Dean can fairly be said to represent the ethos of the country’s increasingly influential professional class, which plays a leading role in today’s Democratic coalition, his ability to appeal outside that group and other elements of the Democratic base is likely to be poor.  His aggressive antiwar stance and liberalism on issues like gay marriage will turn off swing voters, especially white working class and culturally conservative voters, and especially in swing states the Democrats need to win to build an electoral vote majority.
DR thinks Judis is right.  But TAPPED and Jerome Armstrong (writing in MyDD) offer some counterarguments that deserve attention.  Perhaps their dominant theme is that Judis is contradicting his own thesis in The Emerging Democratic Majority by saying that Dean represents the views of the professional class–which EDM annoints as the ideological leader of the new Democratic coalition–but somehow can’t put that coalition together.
DR is pretty familiar with the EDM thesis and can assure TAPPED and MyDD that there is no contradiction.  The key point is that political leadership involves building coalitions that reach outside your base and absorb independent and moderate voters who are leaning your way.  Clinton’s strength was being able to synthesize the views of professionals with those of older elements of the Democratic coalition and present that synthesis in a way that made enough independent and moderate voters feel it was safe to vote Democratic.  That includes the white working class and culturally conservative voters Dean is likely to have the most trouble with.
Really, it seems to DR that Dean supporters’ main argument has to be that the Dean straight talkin’, McCain mojo, aggressive alpha-male thing will obviate any need for the kind of electoral finesse displayed by Clinton.  Independents will hear that straight talkin’ and they’ll rush to sign up, especially as the administration continues to dissemble on Iraq, etc.  But DR believes that not all independents are created equal and that Dean’s approach and persona is still likely to yield its most success with socially liberal, upscale independents in relatively liberal states.
None of this is to say that Dean couldn’t possibly beat Bush in any situation.  If the administration gets into enough hot water on Iraq and the economy anything is possible.  But, if they get into that kind of hot water, then a more moderate, less polarizing–less purely professional class!–candidate like Kerry or Gephardt is even more likely to be able to beat Bush.
It’s all a matter of probabilities.  Dean’s supporters can make a case that he possibly could beat Bush if enough things went his way.  But we need to look at probabilities not possibilities and that’s where Dean’s candidacy falls short.

More Bad Bush Numbers!

Nothing brings a bigger smile to DR’s face and makes him wiggle his ears more happily than a spate of bad Bush numbers.  Yesterday DR went over all the bad news for W in the lastest CBS News poll.  Today, we have both a Newsweek poll and an ABC/Washington Post poll that are chock full of downers for the Bushies.
In the Newsweek poll, Bushs’ approval rating has fallen to 55 percent, down 6 points since the end of May and 16 points since the fall of Baghdad.  Moreover, Bush’s approval rating on handling the Iraq situation is now at just 53 percent, down 16 points since the beginning of May. 
The Post poll has Bush’s approval rating somewhat higher, at 59 percent, but also finds a sharp recent drop of 9 points in the past 18 days.  This pretty much exactly parallels the drop in his approval rating on the Iraq situation, now 58 percent and also down 9 points in 18 days. 
Critically, according to the Post poll, a majority of the public now believes there’s been an “unacceptable” level of casualties in Iraq, which is up 8 points in less than three weeks.  And half the country now agrees that Bush intentionally exaggerated evidence about Iraq’s WMDs. 
Is all this hurting Bush’s chances for re-election?  You’d better believe it.  In the Newsweek poll, just 47 percent say they want to see Bush re-elected to another term as President, while 46 percent say they don’t want to see him re-elected!  Moreover, prospective Bush matchups with specific Democratic candidates yield Bush margins that are much smaller than anything we’ve seen so far.  In a matchup with John Kerry, the mighty incumbent has just an 8 point margin (50 percent for Bush to 42 percent for Kerry). 

Now If We Only Had a Candidate……

The problem, of course, is finding the candidate to take advantage of these emerging Bush vulnerabilities.  Many Dems now like Dean, though DR, John Judis and much of the Democratic establishment remain unconvinced he can beat Bush in the general. 
TAPPED is still convinced Dean can (maybe) do it and offers a spirited critique of Judis’ position in a July 11 post.  DR’s sources tell him that Jonathan Cohn, who always has insightful things to say, is working on an article for The New Republic explaining how Dean could win the general election.  I’ll look forward to that.
And in the meantime, for something completely different, check out Frank Foer’s provocative piece in The Washington Post  today explaining how only Wesley Clark can do the job.   DR’s reaction is an unequivocal maybe.  But a Kerry-Clark ticket?  I can feel my ears wiggling….