Sunday :: Aug 10, 2003

Last August’s Blown Opportunities Not Repeating Themselves This Year


by Steve

It was a year ago at this time that the Democrats lost the 2002 midterm elections. Oh sure, the actual elections were in November, wherein the party took a drubbing in both the House and Senate contests, losing ground in the House and losing a tenuous Jim Jeffords-supported majority in the Senate. But in truth the Democrats lost the midterms during the August 2002 recess and resulting media vacuum by not seizing the opportunity to grab the airwaves and establish the negatives on Bush. By not doing so, and contrasting the unmet needs of the country with Bush’s vacation and fat-cat fundraising in Crawford, Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt allowed Karl Rove to roll out the trumped-up Iraq war drive to push domestic issues off the front page.

Fast forward to now and see what a difference a year and a presidential race can make. Bush is once again vacationing and fundraising in Crawford, while his poll numbers tumble. There is clearly now a first tier of Democratic candidates that get all the attention lately, consisting of Joe Lieberman, Howard Dean, John Kerry, and Dick Gephardt. In fact, I would argue that aside from Gephardt’s endorsement by the Teamsters, there really is only a two-person race for the Democratic nomination at this time between Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman. Gephardt clings to the first tier only because of the Teamsters’ support, and his still strong showing in Iowa. Kerry is only in the first tier at this time because of his leading money situation; his campaign manager Jim Jordan, who was responsible for the DSCC’s nosedive last fall, has now managed to take the front-running candidate of last winter and turn him into a fourth place candidate in less than six months.

Since Garry South came aboard Lieberman’s campaign, he has steered the strategy into a two-person race between Lieberman representing the center-right DLC wing of the party, and Dean representing the center-left base of the party. This is the matchup that South apparently wants, as Lieberman no longer pays any attention it seems to Gephardt and Kerry. Again today, Lieberman trotted out his DLC talking points and warned that Dean and leftist Dems will lead the party to slaughter if they repeal the Bush tax cuts and act weak on defense and national security.

However, Lieberman is ignoring what recent polls point out: the base is fed up with the party for not being tough enough with Bush. In addition, while Lieberman carries the DLC banner, Dean is the only candidate with upward movement among Democrats.

The public is less and less concerned about national security and more concerned about the economy, as reflected in new national polls. So the warnings from types like me several months ago that the Democrats need to be credible on national security seem to be submerged to a new reality that the base, and even independents want more attention paid to economic issues.

Yet in Lieberman’s appearances lately, especially today on Fox, he is providing the GOP with all of the video clips they would need to blast Dean as a tax-raiser on the middle class. Lieberman sounds a little frantic in his attacks, like a man who is watching the base, especially the young move away from the DLC center of the party he is trying to occupy, and towards Dean.

Make no mistake: the battle between Dean and Lieberman is in fact a battle for the soul of the party. Dean believes that in order for the party to beat Bush and win, it must first bring its base back into political activism as well as bring aboard those who haven’t been engaged in politics. Lieberman and the DLC crowd believe that the lessons of the 1990’s were not that Clinton succeeded because of his gifts, but because of his message. Lieberman and the DLC believe that a center-based approach to grab the moderates and swing voters first is more important in winning national elections, and that the base can be pulled along once the middle is aboard. Ironically, both the GOP and Dean believe that the base is most important. Rove is not really worried about grabbing the middle anymore because he is counting on having a stranglehold on his conservative base and being able to confuse the swing voters into thinking that Bush is their guy. Dean and Joe Trippi want to get their base in the game and back onto the streets first, and then show the swing voters and independents that they have a better future under the Democrats.

The most recent Pew Center poll, which was released late last week, confirms several critical things, among which is that the Dean approach may be working.

There is evidence that Democratic voters - and traditional Democrat-leaning demographic groups - are coming home. In addition, the president has lost ground among independents, who are now divided between Bush and a Democratic candidate (34% for Bush, 33% for a Democrat).

Women, especially older women, liberals and middle- and low-income Americans have moved away from Bush. In April there was no gender gap in preferences for 2004, with men favoring Bush by 48% to 35% and women favoring him 48% to 34%. Today, the preferences of men are nearly unchanged (49% Bush, 32% a Democrat), while a plurality of women now support a Democrat (44% Democrat vs. 37% Bush). Much of the shift has come from women age 50 and older. In April, a 52% majority of women age 50 and older favored Bush's reelection. In the current survey, only about a third (35%) support his reelection while 45% prefer a Democrat.

Similarly, the economic gap in presidential preferences is now much wider than in April. A solid majority (55%) of voters with annual family incomes of greater than $50,000 continue to support Bush's reelection. That compares with only about a third (34%) of voters with annual household incomes of less than $50,000. In April, a 46% plurality of this group backed Bush's reelection; today, a comparable plurality (45%) backs the Democrat.

In principle, Americans generally support the tax cuts that have been enacted since Bush became president. But the public continues to prefer postponing or reducing the tax cuts - rather than reducing domestic spending or adding to the deficit - to finance the expanding budget for defense and homeland security. And solid majorities say they support providing health insurance for all Americans even if it means scaling back recent tax cuts, or even raising taxes.

Overall, a 41% plurality believes the best way to pay for the increased cost of defense and homeland security is by postponing or reducing recent tax cuts. That number has been largely unchanged since February 2002. But Americans are showing less willingness to pay for these programs by adding to the budget deficit (15%, down from 20% in late March and 24% in February 2002). And about a quarter (23%) would cut domestic programs for pay for increased security spending, an increase of seven points since late March.

Two-thirds of the public (67%) favors the government guaranteeing health care for all citizens even if it means repealing most of the recent tax cuts. Significantly, just as many Americans say they want the government to provide universal health coverage even if it means raising taxes.

There is enough in these numbers for both Dean and Lieberman to claim support for their positions. And while the Lieberman campaign seeks to maintain its relevance by focusing solely on Dean, Kerry is taking the opportunity to retool his message and get back to his strengths.

He seems to be willing to fly under the radar and watch the Dean/Lieberman main event for a while, taking this time to connect with voters around the country. He is now more ready to remind voters that unlike rest of the Democratic field or the deserter-in-chief, he has been in combat and knows war better than the rest. And he feels that he can articulate better than Lieberman why a partial rollback of the Bush tax cuts that exempts the middle class benefits from those cuts (elimination of the marriage penalty, increased child exemptions) is better than repealing all of the cuts.

After months of concern about this field of candidates, I am for the first time encouraged about the polls and our candidates. Several months of watching the Dean/Lieberman firefight will be good for the party, and the base and DLC can benefit from this debate. Watching Kerry sharpen his message and work at connecting while the firefight goes on will only help him. Edwards can see if his new TV campaign bears fruit, and Gephardt can use the security of the Teamsters endorsement to get a second wind.

With the Bush poll numbers going down, the base and our traditional constituencies returning to the fold and showing renewed interest in our candidates, we are in a much better place this August than we were at this time last year. And for that I thank Howard Dean and the Rummy/Cheney/Rice cabal.

Steve :: 9:24 PM :: Comments (9) :: Digg It!