How The Dems Can Beat The Conventional Wisdom In 2004
As we head into the teeth of the electoral calendar this year, it may be time to take stock of areas of domestic and foreign policy that would be expected to be major issues and think ahead to how BushCo is planning to use each one. There of course is a conventional wisdom (CW) that if Iraq is seen as “under control” and the economy growing with some job growth by November, Bush will win, especially with a compliant media telling us how good he is. We may not like this CW, but that doesn’t mean we cannot do everything possible to overcome it running on true Democratic principles.
But do so, we need to begin planning now for how to deal with what might evolve this year both domestically and overseas, so that we are ready to deal with the Bush spin campaign in these areas. Dealing in starry-eyed hopes about energized and angry supporters overcoming realities on the ground, amongst the media, and current opinion polls are a poor substitute for battle plans to overcome the strength and assumptions of your opponents. If we know that Bush will run on national security and keeping us safe from terrorism, how his tax cuts will lead to better jobs just down the road, and by depersonalizing the message into one of a Reaganesque "Morning In America" by urging votes for the positive GOP over the negative and angry Democrats, we must now lay out our own positive visions, but only after first reminding voters how we got here in the first place.
As I lay out below, if Terry McAuliffe wants to prove his worth to the Democratic Party this year, it will be to coordinate and implement an effort of Section 527 committees and all like-minded organizations to get a communications campaign going now on TV, radio, and print. Unlike 2002, we must get off the starting line first to set the negatives on Bush before this month's State of the Union (SOTU) message, so that voters evaluate whatever he says from this point on against those contrary messages and images. We cannot repeat the mistakes of 2002 and this effort must start now.
Iraq: No matter what the White House says, the strategy here is “cut and run”. Bush is counting on turning a degree of control over to the Iraqi Governing Council by July and reducing our troop commitment significantly, perhaps to the tune of 30,000-40,000 troops, between then and November. He wants to be able to declare victory at the convention in September and keep hammering that point up to Election Day. But will events on the ground play out the way Bush wants them to so that he can reduce troop levels and “declare victory”? And how should Democrats be prepared for this? If things go Bush’s way, there will be no way for Democrats to challenge Bush to the contrary on Iraq prior to the election, even if we know that things may go to hell there in 2005, except to remind the voters about the WMD and Saddam/Al Qaeda lies that got us into the war. But if things go poorly, we will still have no alternative to what he is doing that can be argued by the election, except to argue possibly that more troops need to be put in to the country and that other countries need to be brought on board quickly. This argument can be made now however, as the glow over Saddam’s “capture” wears off and the attacks continue albeit targeted at nonAmericans this spring. And if things get worse, then all bets are off for Bush here.
Iran: Bush gives every appearance that he is taking a stab at the friendly approach with Iran prior to the election, since there is no military imperative or political support for doing anything sooner than November. Why? Because he is a smart politician. So it is a freebie for Bush to listen to Foggy Bottom and give their approach a try while letting the PNAC cabal think he will go their way after the election. (Likewise, Bush's gambit of letting James Baker take a stab at arranging talks between Syria and Israel is smart and a freebie along the same lines.) Let’s be honest here: if the earthquake and our current overextendedness in Iraq and Afghanistan allow Bush the chance to do good things with Iran rather than follow the PNAC script, good for him. Democrats need to keep the pressure up on Bush this year to maintain the friendly, humanitarian approach with the Iranians so that any reversion to the PNAC script by him prior to the election can be made costly for him.
Afghanistan: Face it, we need more troops in Afghanistan, and Bush needs to be made uncomfortable about this, as well as the reemergence of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in that country. Bush’s response so far has been to have his military commanders actually talk peace with the Taliban, but Democrats can make this poisonous for him by reminding voters that it was Bush who let Bin Laden get away at Tora Bora, and now his military commanders are talking peace with the same folks who sponsored Al Qaeda. In fact, aside from putting more troops in Afghanistan, the Democrats can outflank Bush one better on the war on terror, by calling for thousands of troops to be put into the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan to root out and eliminate the Al Qaeda strongholds once and for all. This will put Bush in a terrible spot and it is the right thing to do, and can show that the Democrats are pursuing real measures to stop terrorism.
We have to be prepared for the economy to be growing at a healthy clip at least through midyear and beyond through a typical supply side recovery built on deficit financing. But where is the demand side of the equation, if consumer confidence remains down due to ongoing worries about job losses and the lack of new well-paying jobs? As such, using borrowed money and a weak dollar, the administration will be hoping that the export industries will be doing well enough to pull along the rest of the economy. But most economists feel that even this supply side recovery will do no better than generate 200,000 jobs per month through 2004 if that, and this would lower the unemployment rate to no more than 5.5% by the election. More importantly, Democrats have an opening to argue about what kind of jobs are being created, to wit: do you really want to continue a Bush recovery where your well-paying job is being replaced by a lower-paying job? The simple question will still be the most lethal: are you better off now than you were four years ago, and are you willing to trust this man with another four years to see if your well-paying job comes back, or to see if you keep the job you have now?
Democrats can make effective arguments about the squandered surpluses, and our resulting inability to fully fund a real Medicare drug benefit with real cost containment. Democrats can in fact make a preemptive issue of any Social Security privatization effort by reminding voters that we had the money to make Social Security stronger as little as two years ago before the GOP spend the money. In short, by a set of preemptive TV spots around the time of the SOTU, the Democratic Party can retake the Social Security and Medicare issues from the GOP before Bush tries and cement any gains here.
The environment is an issue that can be used against Bush until the election with success, especially in the northeast and coastal states. Stories like this that show the fallacies of the Bush voluntary compliance approaches can also be trotted out. Energy failings and secrecies, the underfunded educational initiatives, food safety debacles, and other domestic targets are ripe for ongoing TV campaigns funded by friendly 527 committees and interest groups in coordinated efforts.
And yes Democrats can make an issue out of whether Americans truly feel safer at home now than they did before. It is a legitimate campaign issue to remind voters that local governments have still not received promised monies for security measures and first responders. Nor has chemical plant, nuclear plant, or port facility security measures been put in place in the three years since 9/11. Has the Department of Homeland Security made us feel safer?
Again, the communications effort can start at the time of the SOTU later this month. We must not let Bush get off the starting line first by appealing to swing voters with his rollout of meaningless initiatives such as space programs, extending life expectancies, and expanded immigration measures. We must be ready to undercut these attempts first with ads about the 45 million uninsured Americans, underfunded classrooms, broken environmental promises, and money blown in Iraq while there are unmet needs here at home. This last issue has the double benefit of reminding voters that it is insane to talk about new costly initiatives in space while we blow money in Iraq and cannot fund true needs here at home, and will also set Bush up when he has to come back sometime this year for more money for Iraq.
None of these early efforts will immediately change the basic conventional wisdom and dynamic that a perceived growing economy and an improving Iraq, images fed to Americans to the Administration’s benefit by a compliant and beaten media, will led to a Bush election in 2004. But the sooner Democrats develop effective communication strategies and implement them, the better their chances to upset such assumptions and deliver a real surprise in November. The key is to not repeat the mistakes of 2002. Get off first and with good media, and set the negatives now. Don’t wait for the SOTU and for Bush to begin spending the $200 million warchest. The White House is counting on the Democratic Party being bogged down in internecine warfare for months picking a candidate while the GOP tells their story their way. We cannot let that happen again.
The Party and the various 527s must set the negatives so our candidates can begin focusing on laying out positive visions and messages that are desperately needed now.
Every week that goes by without the Democratic TV campaign beginning is a week of failure, and one more week towards making the conventional wisdom a self-fulfilling prophecy.