DEAN AND THE GENERAL ELECTION
by former Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet is pretty good in that it highlights the dilemma facing Dean and the other Democratic candidates should they win the nomination. In short, the premise is that because Bush still earns high personal marks (despite his dropping approval ratings), going after him personally or too viciously may cause enough of a backlash as to seal reelection for him. Kusnet notes that the recent first-term presidents hated most by the opposition -- FDR, Nixon, Clinton (and I'd add Reagan) -- were elected to second terms by wide margins. As for the other incumbents who were less reviled by the opposition:
In 1976, Carter beat Ford by killing him with kindness. Promising "a government as good and decent as the American people," Carter never attacked Ford for pardoning Nixon, his disgraced predecessor. Four years later, in the midst of recession, inflation and the Iranian hostage crisis, Reagan beat Carter without ever attacking him personally. Reagan's pollster, Ronald Wirthlin, cautioned in a memo: "Care must be taken so that the Governor's [Reagan's] criticism of Carter does not come off as too shrill or too personal. We can hammer the President [Carter] too hard, which will spawn a backlash ... The Governor must never attack Jimmy Carter's personal integrity." In 1992, Clinton won the nomination against several rivals who attacked the first President Bush much more harshly than he did, including Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who said, in his stump speeches: "George Bush has feet of clay, and I'm going to take a blow-torch to them."
In his speech announcing his candidacy, Clinton declared: "We're not going to get positive change just by Bush bashing. We have to do a better job of the old-fashioned work of confronting the real problems of real people and pointing the way to a better future." In the primaries and in the general election, Clinton did something none of this year's Democratic contenders are doing: He expressed empathy with the plight of people "working longer and harder for less" and explained how government could help them improve their lives.
"Very little of what Clinton said was attacking Bush," recalls former White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers, who traveled with Clinton during the 1992 campaign. "The tone was, 'We all know President Bush is a decent man. But he is just misguided on the economy, healthcare, and what life is like for most Americans.'"
This sort of a strategy would appear to come more easily to Wesley Clark, who hasn't gone after Bush as viciously as the other candidates (not to mention, uh, speaking at a Bush event a couple of years ago). But is this something Dean can do too? Personally, I think so. Howard Dean is a very smart politician and campaigner, who has very talented and intelligent people working around him, and has as motivated and substantial a base of core supporters as any primary candidate has ever had at this point.
Sure, some his most dedicated supporters are among the biggest haters of Bush. But he needs
those hardcore Dems to win. Remember back in 2000 when Bush spoke at Bob Jones University and referred to the stars&bars as a symbol of "heritage"? That was about solidifying his conservative base. Sure, they're his racist
conservative base, but that's what he was doing. And Dean electrifying crowds of people highly critical of Bush accomplishes the same thing (without the implicit racism of course).
Dean will move to appeal to the center and add positivity to his message in the general campaign. I'm sure of it, he's too smart not to, and he's seen enough of Bill Clinton to know the blueprint here. But in discussing his ability to do that, Kusnet brings up a nonsense piece of CW on Dean's supporters:
So Dean has both the message and the policy agenda to make the case to the undecided electorate that he can solve problems Bush can't. The challenge for the feisty front-runner is to present those policies with optimism more than anger, and to strike the right note when it comes to the president. As long as he's fighting for the Democratic nomination, that could be difficult, since the Bush-hating base may prefer Angry Howard to Dignified, Optimistic Howard. But if he wraps up the nomination early, he'll have time to modulate his appeal.
What kind of fickle fools does Kusnet take the Democratic base for? They're not naive, they know how campaign politics works. No matter what centrist, non-combative overtures Dean makes in the coming months, the anti-Bush, Deaniac base will give the good Dr. the Jerry McGuire treatment ("You had me at hello").
It's just like Bush and his "compassionate conservatism" (as Robin Williams said, "I don't know what that is, it kinda sounds like a Volvo with a gun-rack"). Bush was saying to his base, "you may hear all this rhetoric about 'compassion', but don't worry, my scaly, evil base, my heart is truly still with you, your imperial, christianist objectives will always be paramount to me." The best part is Dean can accomplish the same thing without being his base being full of racists and xian fundies. Yeah, it's too bad that the whole invoking-the-Confed-flag thing became so awkward, but hey.
Lastly, the bigger question of the article: Is the 1992 strategy applicable to 2004?
Kusnet argues that the difference that offers Dems the best point of attack lies in Bush's policy priorities in relation to the relevant facts.
But can the second President Bush be beaten the same way the first one was? Or is the only way to defeat this Bush to demolish the personal credibility that has been at the core of his appeal but could be his greatest vulnerability? The case has been made -- implicitly by Dean and explicitly by Gore -- that Bush is different from previous presidents, particularly his father, and must, therefore, be challenged differently.
Few Americans believed that Bush I was personally to blame for the recession or other problems during his presidency, much less that he was lying about them. They just thought he didn't have a clue about how to solve those problems.
But Bush II is very different -- or so this analysis argues. While his father seemed clueless about how to solve the nation's new problems, the younger Bush always has an answer. The trouble is, it's an answer that he -- and his conservative base -- favored long before the problem emerged.
Bush has always wanted to cut the taxes of wealthy people, so he justified the tax cuts first because the nation could afford them when the federal budget was in surplus and then because the nation needed it when the economy was in recession. He always wanted to remove Saddam Hussein, so, after Sept. 11, his administration kept suggesting that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was working with al-Qaida, however shaky the case for both claims.
Just as his solutions fit any crisis that comes down the pike, so does Bush always seem able to find facts to make his case. Summing up this analysis of why Bush is deceptively dangerous, Gore told the Internet-based liberal activist group MoveOn.org: "The president seems to have been pursuing policies chosen in advance of the facts" and is making "a systematic effort to manipulate the facts in service to a totalistic ideology that is felt to be more important than the mandates of basic honesty."
If Gore is right, then maybe, just maybe, the best way to challenge Bush is to "go right after him," as Dean promises to do. Challenge his premises as well as his policies. Make the voters look behind Bush's friendly smile to see his extreme agenda and his habit of making up the facts as he goes along.
I am hopeful that the eventual nominee will find a way to finesse Bush's personal appeal and attack both the premises and the policies, but whatever works to get Bush out will do.
Both Bush's had sputtering economies and armed conflict in Iraq coming into their reelection campaigns. The difference there is that Bush II is highly vulnerable on his Iraqi endeavor, while the economy might recover in the coming months (though then again it might not). The latest polling shows that only 40% of Americans think the Iraq war was "worth it", while 51% believe it was not. That's the Dean position (and to a lesser extent, the Clark position). The challenge is how to package that position in a way that is both positive and proactive.
There will be much more to ponder, but the library is closing soon so I'm outtie.