Sunday :: Aug 29, 2004
Can Bush's "Screw the Middle" Strategy Work?
If anyone is still wondering what the Bush campaign's post-Convention strategy will look like, this Nick Confessore post lays it out succinctly:
THE BASE VERSUS THE MIDDLE. No one should be surprised that the Bush campaign has been doling out interviews with the president and his chief aides almost entirely to right-wing radio talk show hosts, as the Boston Globe reports here. It's part and parcel of the strategy Karl Rove has made clear he intends to pursue: Stir up the base as much as possible, keep John Kerry's voters from turning out, either through negative attacks or shadier endeavors like voter intimidation and disinformation in key states. They've given up any hope of reaching the broad middle ground. And they've shown in the past few years that they will pursue the agenda they have in mind with or without a mandate from voters. They don't care if this election is a squeaker as long as they win, and under the circumstances the best they can do is a base-turnout election that nets 51 percent.
To a large extent, this "feed the base, forget the middle" strategy is borne out of necessity, given that the Bush campaign's assiduous courting of Democratic-leaning voters--Latinos, Jews, Teamsters, seniors, etc.--has all but failed. However, I have the feeling that the Bush campaign honestly believes that it can duplicate its successful strategy from the 2002 midterm election, as this excellent WaPo article indicates:
A top official from a former Republican White House said Bush's governing operation created critical problems for his political arm by deciding to "divide and conquer rather than unite and win." This official, who refused to be identified because he works with Bush's inner circle, said that largely because of Vice President Cheney's influence, the White House adopted a confrontational style with Capitol Hill and with the Democratic Party that is endangering Bush's chance of reelection. "There's nobody over there saying 'No,' " the official said. "It's all the same Kool-Aid. Instead of the art of governing, it's been, 'Are you for me or against me?' "
Steven Schier, a Carleton College political scientist, has edited a book on Bush's political style called "High Risk and Big Ambition." In pursuit of large goals, Schier believes, Bush and his political team are willing to take "audacious risks" with voters in the middle so long as the GOP base is secure; 2002 showed the rewards of this style, while 2004 has so far highlighted the perils.
"When you take risks, if your premises are wrong, you pay a price," said Schier, who noted that Bush might well be coasting to victory had he been proved right that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction or that tax cuts would have an unambiguous stimulative effect on the economy. As it is, Schier said, Bush has spent the year stroking his partisan base and pursuing an electoral strategy that amounts to "reaching the top of a low ceiling."
Frankly, I don't see how this strategy will work, barring a spectacular collapse on the part of the Kerry campaign, or "outside events" intruding. As another revealing WaPo article points out, Bush's "stoke the base" strategy has had the effect of energizing the Democratic base as well (which did not happen in 2002), with the Dems outpacing the Republicans in registering new voters in Florida, for example. Moreover, undecided voters, although constituting a smaller slice of the electoral pie, remain skeptical of the Bush campaign, which isn't surprising, given that they are effectively being written off by the Bush brain trust. As Harris and Allen astutely point out, this strategy, which proved devastatingly effective in 2002, may very well be the undoing of BC this fall.
In short, the Bush campaign's "screw the middle" strategy, whatever its motivation, is a profound miscalculation IMHO, and I have the feeling that Republican strategists are going to arrive at this same conclusion after it's too late.