Friday :: Apr 18, 2003

Bush at His Zenith-Part Three


by Steve

As I said in previous posts on this subject, George W. Bush looks strong right now, with approval ratings in the low seventies, per the most recent Washington Post-ABC News Poll. Coupled with a White House-dominated media and corporate/conservative fundraising advantage that will likely pump $400 million into GOP campaigns next year, such poll numbers can give many the impression that 2004 is hopeless, especially if there is an upward tick in the economy between now and Election Day 2004.

Let’s take a step back from the gloom and look at the issues and candidates, and some possible potholes that can be placed in Bush and Rove’s gold-lined street to election. As I said, I think there will be no more than four issues that Bush will campaign on next year, and I believe that they will be fear/national security, jobs/tax cuts, a Medicare drug benefit, and a wild card, which I think will be the GOP staple of values/patriotism.

Fear/National Security

This is the one issue Bush and Rove assume they will have in the bag, since Rove is selling the “Bush as Protector” image while he surreptitiously pulls the levers of “Bush as Fearmonger” whenever it is needed. Bush’s high approval ratings right now seem to affirm their confidence, but the polls, future events, and the characteristics of the candidates argue against quick conclusions here. The Post poll above indicates that those surveyed feel the overthrow of Hussein will make America safer and less likely to suffer from terrorism. The poll also indicates that voters think North Korea is more of a threat than Syria, but voters don’t want war with either. The same poll shows that voters want to fund stabilization measures in Iraq, but don’t want the US to be bogged down in nationbuilding and want our troops to come home after stabilization. These results, if representative of voters as a whole, paint problems for Bush. Obviously, if there is another terrorism incident between now and Election Day, it will not only undermine voter confidence and challenge their assumptions over the value of Bush’s pre-emptive policy, but will point out that Bush’s rationale for toppling Saddam was faulty to being with in that it didn’t make us safer after all. With China now engaged in the North Korea talks, and Great Britain and Russia opposed to a military strike against Syria, Bush has no wiggle room internationally to gin up the fear of voters again for strikes against those countries. And given the voters’ desires to stabilize Iraq and get out, Bush is now in a no-win situation where a long-term occupation desired by his plunder-seeking corporate benefactors is opposed by voters, yet a “cut and run” mission will confirm the worst to the Arab world. And if our troops suffer losses from being in Iraq any day longer than voters feel is necessary, then it gets worse for Bush. Indeed, from the poll results, it appears that Bush failed to convince voters of the true costs and US obligations for toppling the regime, namely the responsibility for rebuilding the country and lives we just blew up.

Which Democratic candidate is best positioned here? Clearly Graham, Lieberman, and to a lesser degree Kerry are as knowledgeable if not more so than Bush, and better able to enunciate a strong but forward-looking national security policy that helps voters overcome the climate of fear created and manipulated by Rove-instigated fear attacks. Gephardt can inoculate himself by pointing to his kneecapping support of Bush’s invasion resolution, but he has shown little in terms of national security acumen in all his years on the Hill. Neither Edwards nor Dean have enough experience here to match up against an incumbent “wartime” president on these issues credibly. The one wild card here is to what degree Lieberman will try to move beyond Bush’s “road map” towards an “everything Likud wants” approach in the Middle East. Lieberman's advantage here is that he will siphon off Jewish support for Bush; the "minus" with Lieberman is that he may "out-Likud" Bush at the expense of a balanced approach between the Israelis and Palestinians.

Jobs/Tax Cuts

The empirical arguments against Bush’s stewardship of the economy and his “giveaways disguised as stimulus” are well established, even if you accept that the stock market bubble was going to burst anyway. Also well established are the facts on the ground while he has been president: over two million jobs lost and the elimination of a multi-trillion-dollar surplus since he was appointed by the Supreme Court. It is true that any type of economic uptick of substance between now and Election Day can cinch it for Bush, given his control over the media and the corporate ATM that will be funding his election. But even if an uptick happens, the question remains which candidate(s) can still hang in there and offer an alternative that may appeal to independents and turn out our base in what may still be a losing cause, while helping the party in Congress? And are there issues that the Democratic candidate can offer to make voters think twice about Bush’s priorities?

For all his time in the Senate, Lieberman has been relatively silent as a major player in economics, and his water-carrying for the accounting industry in the 90’s doesn’t help. Most of the rest of the pack have offered alternatives to the Bush plan that are designed to put money in peoples’ pockets and spur spending to provide short-term stimulus. In addition, Kerry has already offered a $20 billion stimulus package for the small business community, who seem to be forgotten by Bush. Edwards to his credit has addressed the need to assist the states in their budget problems. Gephardt earned his spurs on tax issues years ago from his work with Bill Bradley in the 80’s that led to the Reagan-credited 1986 reform bill. But in my mind, as ex-governors, Dean and to a lesser degree Graham, may have an advantage here by claiming that they were closest to the ground on these issues. Dean may also be best able to clobber Bush on a tagline that Bush himself used in the 2000 campaign: “a reformer with results.” As someone who hasn’t been in Washington and therefore is best able to attack the current system of special interest-driven tax preferences and inequities, Dean may be best positioned to attack Bush on corporate accountability (yes, remember Enron?), and two sleeper issues that can blunt the move for more tax breaks for business and the wealthy: offshore tax havens and corporate welfare. Why not demand that offshore tax havens for individuals and corporations and corporate welfare subsidies be eliminated before any more revenue-draining tax cuts are granted, especially since the voters are against increasing the deficit? The Democratic candidate needs to tell the voters that Mr. Bush forces a choice between more tax breaks for business and the well-off, or adequate funding for veterans/kids/Social Security/Medicare/national security/insuring the uninsured, etc..

Can this simple issue of equity and fairness be hammered by the Democratic candidate, even in what may ultimately be a losing cause, in such a way that the base turns out and helps our candidates for the House and Senate?

I will pass on discussing Bush’s weaknesses on the Medicare drug issue and the strongest Democrats to counter him until I can finish some additional research on this.

Values/Patriotism

We know that Bush and Rove will use this. There will be countless speeches to the right audiences in front of walls of American flags, all carried lovingly by the GOP-controlled media. Which of the candidates present the most problems for Bush in this area? Well, we already know that John Kerry is itching to be on a stage opposite Bush when W mentions anything at all about patriotism and service. It is also true that although Kerry’s “regime change” comment may have gone down well with the base, it may have hurt him with independents. It is also true that knowing how Rove works, he will never let Bush wander into such a face-to-face ambush with Kerry; he’ll have surrogates smear Kerry on this instead. I also think Bush would have a hard time with Graham on this as well, given that any attack on Graham, who owns Florida, is an attack on the assessments of Florida voters as well. Edwards will be smeared by Bush on his “values” of being supported by trial lawyers, which Edwards to date has been eager to rejoin with a defense of trial lawyers as compared to HMOs. Gephardt, unlike Bush, wore the uniform for several years in the 50’s, and has the staunch support of labor, so any attack on him will not go over well with a key group either: the Teamsters. Lieberman presents to Bush one candidate where the values question is a loser; Lieberman’s faith and voters’ trust of him trumps Bush on these issues, and Rove is reportedly concerned about matching up with Lieberman on this.

One Myth and Other Issues

There is one myth and several other issues that I wish to address that have a bearing on the race next year. The myth deals with Rove’s success and invincibility. Although Rove is credited with being a genius and an unstoppable force, allow me to suggest the following: Rove looks good because Bush in Texas ran against candidates who were caught flat-footed and disinterested (Ann Richards), or grossly outspent and not A-list material (Gary Mauro). Even in the GOP primaries in 2000, Bush faced only one credible national candidate in John McCain, and Rove had to smear him in South Carolina to ensure the nomination. The one time Rove faced a quality candidate, Bush still lost by 550,000 votes even after Gore managed to botch key decisions and had the media against him.

Second, Bush gets away with a lot because the media allows Rove to lower the expectations so much that Bush looks good just by being able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But as the incumbent in 2004, this cannot work anymore.

Third, with the likelihood that the Democrat will be outspent by three or four to one, which candidate is best suited to make an issue of how beholden Bush is to the corporate ATM and the linkage of corporate interests to Bush’s eventual decisions? Which candidate can most effectively attack Bush on the unseemliness of a campaign warchest of $400 million primarily funded by corporate interests who directly benefit from Bush domestic and foreign policies?

Fourth, voters now have four years of Bush to see what another four years of Bush would mean for the environment, the Supreme Court, and civil liberties. These are issues that Rove cannot spin enough to overcome concerns from key independent swing voters.

And given events overseas and the uncertainties on whether the economy will strengthen enough for Bush to buy four more years, Democrats should not be despondent eighteen months out. Bush has the advantages right now.

But let's not waive any white flags.

Steve :: 4:20 PM :: Comments (10) :: Digg It!