Thursday, February 05, 2004
Back to politics. Now that we know Kerry's going to be the nominee (am I going out on a limb here?), what should he do? And what should Bush worry about most? And what should he (Bush) do in response?
First of all, Kerry should not stop running. He is way ahead in Michigan; he should not lose that lead. He should compete hard for Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin. The latest polls of Tennessee and Virginia have Kerry in the lead. If he wins either of these states, he can claim to have won in every region in the country, and there is no plausible reason for any of the other campaigns to continue. If he loses both, it won't make a difference to the final outcome (can you see Clark or Edwards winning New York, California or Florida at this point? can you doubt that if Kerry wins all three, he'll be the nominee?) but it will drag out the fight. Edwards and Clark are going to be fighting each other to be the Southern-credible candidate. That gives Kerry room to achieve at worst an Oklahoma-type result (a rough 3-way tie), which is all he really needs to close down the Edwards and Clark campaigns.
But the main reason he should not stop running is: he needs to be present in the South in the general election. Neither Kerry nor Bush have the luxury of writing off a huge chunk of the country in its entirety. Kerry should no more write off the handful of Southern states that he might pick off (e.g., Virginia, Louisiana) than Bush should write off those Midwestern states that Gore won but that might go for the GOP (e.g., Minnesota, Pennsylvania). If he ignores these states in the primaries, he'll be making his first impression when Bush is fully engaged. He should make his first impression now, while the context and the press are both favorable.
Second, Kerry should not pick Dick Gephardt or John Edwards as his Vice Presidential nominee. Edwards is not going to be as much help for Kerry as he would like Kerry to think. I don't think he'd make the difference in carrying any Southern state. And I'm not convinced that John Edwards will make the difference in energizing the black vote, something Kerry will need help with. I can see why *Edwards* would want to get picked; it would keep him alive for 2008, which he'll otherwise be poorly positioned for. But I don't think an Edwards pick gives Kerry much buzz. Gephardt, meanwhile, is just too tired. It's a backward-looking pick, like Dole picking Kemp. Kerry's already got a problem seeming like the candidate of the establishment. How does Gephardt help him shed that image? If Gephardt were at the top of the ticket, he'd be favored to win Missouri, which is a must-win state for Bush. But I'm less convinced that he'll make the difference as Veep. Besides, both these guys are Washington legislators.
So who should he pick? I don't think Hillary would take the job if offered, and I don't think Kerry would offer; he'd be overshadowed by his Veep - and, un-PC as it is to say this, by a woman - and neither is a good thing. Bill Richardson, Governor of New Mexico would be a very intelligent choice. He's got a moderate reputation and he's Hispanic. That would do a lot to boost Mexican-American turnout in states like Arizona, Colorado and would certainly give Kerry New Mexico. And if a Democrat is competing seriously for Arizona and Colorado, the Republican is in trouble. Richardson is also well-balanced in the experience area. The only person I can think of who'd be a better pick than Richardson is Jennifer Granholm, Governor of Michigan, and she's ineligible because she's an immigrant from Canada.
Regardless of who he picks, Kerry's biggest strengths are going to come out late in the game. Bush is going to be riding high around the time of the GOP convention. He'll have been pummelling Kerry in both TV ads and direct mail all through the summer, making maximum use of his enormous warchest. The economy will be puttering along, more or less, I suspect more. Kerry will have bored everyone to tears. Bush's guys'll put on a great show for the TV cameras at the convention. God-willing, nothing horrible will have happened on the war front, at home or abroad. But, right when most people start to pay attention, Kerry will hit his stride. Kerry is a very strong debater. I remember his contest with Bill Weld - like Bush, a much more personable guy than Kerry, someone ordinary people were more likely to identify with, and personally popular. Kerry will not walk into the same traps Gore did. And Cheney, in the Veep debate, won Bush a lot of points last time around by seeming extremely reasonable and sane and informed. He won't play that way this time around. He's going to be much more on the defensive - about his role in the structuring of pre-war intelligence, specifically. And anything Bush does wrong, Kerry is going to hammer on relentlessly, to try to throw Bush off his game, make him defensive and cautious. If Bush falls into that trap, he really could lose.
Bush is going to get cocky by the end of August. That's his nature. He's going to start to coast. And then Kerry is going to surprise him, probably in the debates, and throw him on the defensive. Bush isn't strong in that position.
How should Bush fight? Well, I think the "liberal, liberal, liberal" line is not going to work too well. It's just not the swear word it used to be. Bush'll get mileage out of some social issues, but not much; the country is just too evenly divided. Kerry will be harder to tar with the whole litany - soft on welfare, soft on crime, anti-gun, pro-flag-burning, pro-pornography, etc. - than Michael Dukakis is. But besides, many of these issues - welfare and crime in particular - are much less salient than they were a decade ago. Bush knows that.
I think conventional "character" attacks are also going to be relatively weak. Not enough of the country cares that Kerry is a gold-digger, and they certainly don't care if he plays dirty as a candidate (besides: about this Bush can complain?). Bush can't run on "Kerry's aloof and I'm fun and friendly." People are going to be looking for a leader, not a dinner companion. Kerry comes off as boring and arrogant; Gore came off as weird, which is very different. Kerry's more like Bill Bradley than like Gore. (Bradley, by the way, was also notorious for being lousy at constituent service, for considering himself above that sort of thing. He had a division of labor with Frank Lautenberg kind of like Moynihan's division of labor with D'Amato, albeit no one ever accused Moynihan of being aloof. Drunk, yes; aloof, no. Anyhow, that almost cost Bradley his seat when Christie Whitman ran against him. But he was known for real, substantive accomplishments on the national level, unlike Kerry, who's legislative record is almost nonexistent.)
Bush can try to run on Kerry's testimony about Vietnam in the 1970s, but he has to be very careful. And the reason he has to be careful has a name: John McCain. McCain is a friend of Kerry's, and while he's loyal to the GOP, he's no friend of Bush's. If Bush or his surrogates attack Kerry for his association with anti-war groups, McCain will speak out. And that could be absolutely devastating among swing voters Bush needs to win.
More generally, I think that going with any largely negative campaign will fail. Why? Because people are not scared of what the Democrats will do; they are scared of what the Democrats *won't* do. They are scared the Democrats are not up to snuff on foreign policy, where the GOP gets something like a 2-to-1 advantage. On domestic issues, the country is divided on various matters, but not fundamentally scared, the way they were before Clinton proved Democrats can be trusted not to wreck the economy. And if Bush runs a largely negative campaign focused entirely on foreign policy, he's leaving Kerry a huge opening to attack Bush as unconcerned with "real Americans" and their economic troubles - the way Clinton ran against Bush's father in 1992.
So how should Bush fight?
First, he needs to run on, not away from, his record. He should strongly defend the Iraq war, and his general conduct of foreign policy. He should strongly defend his domestic record as well.
Saddam was a homicidal maniac with a vendetta against America. He was playing cat and mouse with the UN and was not someone we could allow to continue to remain in power. After 9-11, it would have been the height of folly to allow a dangerous man like that, who had thumbed his nose at his own agreements, massacred his own people, and threatened the United States, to remain in power. So I, George Bush, made the decision, with full legal authority from a series of UN resolutions and from the US Congress, to remove him from power. I made the call.
In late 2000, the US economy had been growing at a blistering pace. The stock market had recently hit all-time highs. But the market was falling, bankruptcies were picking up. I, George Bush, and my advisors believed that the economy was vulnerable. A serious slump in investment could put us into a prolonged recession. Monetary policy wasn't going to do enough. We needed to shore the economy up with good fiscal policy, on both the demand and the supply side, by cutting taxes across the board. Put money in people's pockets and improve the incentives for investment. We did that, and the economy responded. You can quibble with one or another detail about the tax bill that I passed, and you always have to compromise with Congress. But I saw what the economy needed, and I made the call.
Health care. Democrats and Republicans have been arguing for twenty years about how to fix health care. There's a lot still to be done. But we knew that there were some things people agreed on - for example, that comprehensive coverage had to include prescription drugs. We need to do more to get costs in line and make sure there's robust choice. But we couldn't say any longer that seniors should go without this coverage because we can't agree on all the details. So I made the call, and we passed a bill.
Education. My opponent has articulated some of the terrible deficiencies of American education. It's a problem we were all aware of, but nothing was being done. At a minimum, you have to have accountability for things to improve. I knew we wouldn't pass anything without strong bi-partisan support. So I sat down with my opponent's Democrat colleague from Massachusetts, Senator Kennedy, and worked with him to establish overall principles for accountability, and craft a bill. Some say we've shortchanged the bill we passed. We've increased education spending by 65% at the Federal level, a far bigger increase than under President Clinton. There are ways we can make No Child Left Behind better, and I'm eager to work with Republicans and Democrats to do that. But we needed to make a start, and I made sure we did.
You see the pattern, right? Kerry complains that what Bush has done on this or that issue is insufficient, or biased to the rich, or handled badly. Okay, mister: what have you done? Decisions need to be made, I make 'em. What do you do?
I'm not suggesting Bush run an "it's about competance, not ideology" campaign. He should hit on the same themes that have worked for him in the past, and they are ideological themes: aggressive defense of America's interests and the American homeland, a pro-investment tax code, accountability and choice in government services, promoting the culture of life and the culture of marriage. I am suggesting that Bush needs to run on his record, and weave that record into a story about how he's a strong, decisive leader, just what America needs at a time like this. By contrast, he'll make Kerry look like a whiner who sits on the sidelines complaining that he could do it better. That's a very good contrast to draw, in part because the picture it paints of Kerry is pretty much true.
How's Kerry going to respond? There are three strong themes Kerry can harp on that have bite.
The first is: Bush's achievements are all show. He passes an education bill, but doesn't care whether the bill works or not. He stumps for a prescription drug bill, but lets the lobbyists write the bill, so that costs skyrocket while seniors get stiffed. He starts a war with Iraq without any plan for how to handle the country afterward, and then wings it, changing policy every few weeks in response to events. He has a national security strategy that calls for American preeminence over everyone in the world, and a defense budget growing by leaps and bounds, but he won't spend money to increase troop strength and improve benefits for soldiers, so that we have enough men who go into and stay in the service to fulfill the mission he's assigned them. He even says we're going to go to Mars, and guts NASA's basic science budget. His political team is really smart, and comes up with great-sounding initiatives to announce. But there's no there there - nothing behind the image.
Why does this work? Because it plays to people's real - and legitimate - concerns about Bush's character. People trust Bush's instincts and values. They don't think he's the most hands-on guy, though, and they don't necessarily trust the GOP. If Kerry can undercut Bush's decisiveness by saying that Bush's own decisions get undermined from lack of follow-through, that could have some bite. Particularly if Bush doesn't respond well. And particularly if Kerry runs on some real, substantive positions that cannot be caricatured as coming from Bush's left - for example, increasing the sheer size of America's armed forces.
The second is: the Bush recovery stinks. Unemployment remains high. We're told that's because of high productivity. I know and you know America's workers are the most productive in the world - we don't need statistics to tell us that, we know it. So why don't we get a fair share of the benefits? Why are corporate profits up and wages stagnant? You know what "higher productivity" means to Bush's economists? It means people with jobs are working more hours for the same pay, while every job companies can manage to shift overseas they do. Stagnating wages and stangnating employment coupled with high corporate profits: that's what high productivity means to them. The last time America bought the idea that the stock market was all that mattered, small investors lost our shirts. We need good jobs, at good wages, with good benefits, and enough time to take care of our families, our aging parents and our children. That's what America needs, a real deal, that makes sure prosperity is shared by all, and not just by corporate CEOs.
I have very little patience with this myself, but it works. And Kerry can point to lots of specifics besides just repeating "Enron, Enron, Enron" - which, truth be told, has nothing to do with the Bush Administration at all. He can point to both the tax-cut and spending side of the ledger and highlight all the ways the Bush Administration has been friendly to corporate interests. I'm not suggesting he do a full Bob Shrum. I think he'll get more traction by just saying: Bush thinks what's good for GM (or, more accurately, Boeing and Halliburton) is good for America. I think what's good for America should be good enough for GM! Kerry shouldn't declare class warfare himself by railing against "the rich" and making people think he's going to raise their taxes. He should accuse Bush of waging class warfare by giving hundreds of millions of dollars away to corporations, running a huge deficit, and *not* cutting taxes that hit or are about to hit the middle class - for example, the Alternative Minimum Tax, or the payroll tax. Edwards' "war on work" line is a good one; Kerry should steal it. (An excellent bit of ju-jitsu would be for Kerry to propose revenue-neutral changes in the tax code to cut the AMT and the payroll tax and increase the IRA deduction for most taxpayers while raising - or even just freezing at current levels - rates on the higher tax brackets. What's Bush going to say to that?) Most important, Kerry should remind everyone, all the time, how many jobs have been lost on Bush's watch. There is no answer Bush can make that is good; he either sounds like he's trying to weasel out of responsibility, or like he doesn't care about unemployment. All he can do is try to change the subject. Kerry shouldn't let him.
The third is: Bush is dishonest. And dishonest about important things. We now know that there were no WMD in Iraq. We know that the Vice President pushed for an interpretation of intelligence that was skewed in order to support his case for war. Did the President know that? Well, if he didn't know if then, he knows it now. Now, we all know intelligence is never perfect. But that's no excuse for making it worse by ideologically-driven interference. And here's the amazing thing: no one admits making a mistake! No one in the Bush Administration has yet admitted that they made a mistake - no one has been fired; no one has even been reprimanded! Why? Mr. President, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time. But you can't fool the American people this time.
This is a dangerous one. Kerry can't appear to be wandering into "Bush Lied/People Died" territory. There should be no suggestion that Bush nefariously tried to get us into war for political purposes. That's beyond the pale. The emphasis should be: Bush oversells to make his case, and when he's wrong he never admits it - and never holds anyone accountable. I think people have a gut-level discomfort with the fact that Iraq has not turned out to have the weapons we thought it did. Kerry has to turn that into a political issue against Bush without making it sound like he's soft on defense or engaging in 20/20 hindsight. The issue should be: Bush is so concerned about appearances, and so unwilling to admit he or anyone loyal to him could be wrong, that he's undermining American credibility. And that's hurting America. The only way to restore that credibility is for Bush to clean house - which he won't do - or for America to clean house by getting rid of Bush. If Kerry can play this one well, he could do Bush real damage. If he plays it poorly, it'll backfire - badly.
That's Kerry's strongest anti-Bush case. Kerry'll have a harder time making a positive case of his own, because that means actually standing for something, taking a position, and that's not exactly something Kerry's known for. The usual Democrat litany is Health Care/Education/Social Security. Bush has, I think, effectively neutralized the second, and the third is an entirely negative issue (stop those evil Republicans from taking away our Social Security!). Kerry needs something positive. Health Care remains a very salient issue, but I don't know that Kerry has anything more useful to say about it than a zillion other Democrat campaigns.
If Kerry is looking for strong, positive themes, they should be:
1. End the war on work. Cut the payroll tax and remove the wage cap. Freeze the upper-income brackets where they are today (it's not a tax hike - we're leaving them where they are!) and instead cut the Alternative Minimum Tax. Have the government match IRA contributions for low-income taxpayers. And before we give our jobs away to foreign workers, let's raise the minimum wage so Americans - new or old - can earn a decent living for an honest day's work. This is not lowest-common-denominator Shrummery and its not anti-capitalist. It's smart politics - smarter than just saying "tax the rich" or even "middle-class tax cut." I think Bush would have a hard time countering.
2. Beef up defense to win this war, not the last war. We need four more divisions in the regular army to comfortably meet our current mission and be able to deter future threats. If that costs money, let's spend the money; that's money well-spent. If we take out regime's like Saddam Hussein's - which I supported [on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays] - we need to have the forces to help police the country afterwards and shepherd it to a stable democracy. We should have a branch of the Army specifically devoted to this kind of occupation duty; we're going to do it, we'd better get good at it. We need to invest more in port security, security at chemical plants and nuclear power plants, security for our water supply. We are not spending the money we need, not hiring the people we need. Why? Because we're spending too much on nuclear subs (no other country even has a substantial navy), missile defense (only Russia and China have substantial nuclear-tipped missile forces) and stealth fighters (with smart bombs and drones, we can fight from a distance, and don't need stealth so much) that we don't need. We need to transform the military, but that means making choices. We need more men, and we need to spend money on that, not weapons systems to fight an enemy that no longer exists. This whole spiel will resonate with moderate Democrats and Independents, and it has the political virtue of adding to government payrolls, always a plus for Democrats.
3. Restore our alliances. Bush brags about our coalition in Iraq. But that coalition could be three times the size if we bothered to listen to our allies instead of dictating to them. We need to get NATO into Iraq. We need to work collectively, with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand and our other Pacific Rim allies, to fight terrorism and to end the threat of war on the Korean Penninsula. We can't do it alone, and if we don't work together with our allies we will be doing it alone. (This is a very vague point - what, precisely, is Kerry going to say we should do? But it plays to perceptions about Bush that are strong, and play well with the Democratic base without, I think, alienating moderates.)
4. Health-care. Well, he's going to talk about it whether I put it on my list or not. So here it is. I wish him luck devising a solution to our health-care woes that is both popular and possible. No one's done it yet, and we've tried several times. (Remember catatrophic health care? Hillarycare? And now Bush is getting beat up over finally passing a prescription drug benefit. This is a no win issue for the GOP: anyone who actually tries to pass something gets murdered, but if nothing gets passed the issue works for Democrats. So it won't go away any time soon.)
That's a solid, clear, compact message. It plays to Democrat strengths on three points, and tries to get to Bush's right in a creative way on a fourth point (beefing up defense). It's a lot clearer than the mess Gore ran on in 2000. It's a lot more concrete than the vague mush that Kerry's running on now. Will he shape up and run a focused campaign? I doubt it. But then, I don't think Kerry's so hot. And I'm a Republican. I mention all this to lay out what he could and should do, not to predict what he will do. Bush should be prepared for his opponent to do the smart thing, not just the most likely thing.
What else should Bush worry about?
He should worry that the gay marriage debate is no-win for him. Most people in the country are not comfortable with the idea. But they mostly don't want to make a stink. 20% to 30% of the country is viscerally outraged, and expects their President to be viscerally outraged as well. That puts Bush in a bind. If he comes out swinging for a Constitutional Amendment, he'll lose votes at the margins among independents and among suburban women (not to mention among gays). If he endorses an Amendment but tries to play down the issue, his base will be furious, and some of them will stay home. That will not only hurt Bush, but it will also hurt down-ballot contests for the Senate in the South that Bush badly wants to win to make it easier for him to govern. No one will punish Kerry for being wishy-washy on this issue; anyone for whom it's a voting matter is never going to vote for Kerry anyhow.
(By contrast, I think the abortion issue can work well for Bush, better than it ever has before for Republicans. The Democrats are now so far to the left on this issue, and the country has been moving in the GOP's direction. Bush should not be shy about talking about how to reduce the number of abortions in America and how important it is to have restrictions on abortion generally. He shouldn't talk about it as a black/white issue; that could scare people. But he should paint the Democrats as extremists on the question, and force Kerry to defend the kinds of lunatic things that, for example, General Clark came out with on abortion.)
He should worry about a third-party protest candidacy from the Buchananites. Bush has done absolutely nothing for the paleos. They are against the war, against his expansion of government, and violently against his immigration proposal (which will go nowhere, but the damage in this quarter has been done). Plus Buchanan specifically can't stand the Bush family. (Not that he'd be the strongest candidate.) A paleo candidate could make the difference in a handful of states that Bush absolutely needs to win: Louisiana, for example, or Nevada, or New Hampshire. A Bush nightmare could be: he runs against a Kerry-Richardson ticket, and Richardson pulls record numbers of Hispanic voters to the polls in the Southwest. Bush downplays racial issues, leaving him vulnerable to a paleo challenger running on closing the borders, throttling back on the war, and cutting Federal spending. The squeeze puts Arizona, Nevada and even Colorado in play in the Southwest, Louisiana in the South, New Hampshire in the Northeast, and makes real inroads in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania that complicate Bush's Midwestern strategy. In a close race, a Buchananite candidate could do to Bush what Nader did to Gore: force him to defend states that he should not have had to defend (e.g., Wisconsin, Oregon) while making the difference between winning and losing in close states nationally (e.g., Florida). Bush should be very worried about this scenario because there's nothing much he can do about it; he can't pander to this voting bloc without wrecking his general strategy and he can't really deter them. He just has to hope a candidate like that doesn't get traction. Depending on how the war goes, I think a Buchananite candidate could get between 1% and 5% nationally - 1% if the war is going extremely well and employment picks up; 5% if Iraq really deteriorates or the economy dips back into recession. I may be overly pessimistic about this . . . but I don't think I am. I think there are several sectors of the GOP coalition that Bush has done little for. Libertarians are furious about spending and nanny-state interventions. Paleos are furious about the immigration proposal and do not like the war. And there are probably a few quirky Perot voters who have wandered back into the GOP tent but are not tethered there, and could wander off if they get cranky enough. It all depends on context, and on who the protest candidate is. In any event, I don't think Bush should ignore this possibility.
But mostly he should worry about America. If he does the right things, I truly believe he'll be re-elected. If he coasts, and things turn south, he'll be booted.
Whew! That was a long one.