Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

For some reason, I think I have something to say to you. You think you have something to say to me? Email me at: gideonsblogger -at- yahoo -dot- com

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Thursday, August 05, 2004
So, having written about Kerry's acceptance speech, and how bad I thought it was, and about how I think Bush's position is stronger than many people think (particularly Democrats - excepting Kerry-haters like Mickey Kaus), I thought it behooved me (a) to lay out Bush's vulnerabilities again, and (b) outline how his acceptance speech could respond to these vulnerabilities and strengthen his position going into the general election.

I'm going to look at Bush's position two ways: the way Karen Hughes would look at it and the way Karl Rove would look at it.

David Frum memorably described the difference between their two approaches. Karen Hughes, he said, looks at the electorate the way an old 1950s-style broadcaster looked at his audience. She focuses on big themes and catch-phrases that will produce a positive and memorable impression in the mind of the broader public, and move the whole distribution of opinion about the candidate in the right direction. Karl Rove, meanwhile, looks at the electorate as composed of discrete particles representing different interest groups of differing strength and size. Some of these particles have the same charge, and attract each other; some have opposite charge, and repel each other; and some are neutral. His objective is to collect enough particles of sufficient collective mass to constitute an electoral majority.

So let's look at this the way Hughes does first. What are Bush's big vulnerabilities across the electorate?

If I had to boil the public's biggest concern with Bush down to one word, that word would be judgement. Has Bush shown good judgement as President? Can we trust him to make the best decision? Bush has successfully convinced most people that he is a good man, that he has strong values and beliefs, and that he is decisive. But a significant number of people who believe all these good things about him also believe he has shown bad judgement.

How he has shown bad judgement is something that will vary widely based on the ideological and policy preferences of the person in question. But the common thread is: suspicion that Bush does not know what he is doing, that he goes with his gut without gathering enough information and without evaluating that information correctly.

It seems clear to me that the core event that pushed Bush into danger territory with respect to public trust of his judgement is the intelligence failure in Iraq. If America had found significant illegal stockpiles of WMD or an active illicit program to develop nuclear weapons, the public would be vastly more supportive of the war and of Bush's decisionmaking, even considering all the postwar problems we've had. But we didn't, and Bush does not have a good explanation for why we got that wrong other than to say everyone else did, too. This failure has come to be perceived by much of the public as part of a pattern: Bush decides on a course of action and then selects facts that support his decision. That is not a process likely to lead to good decisions.

As I say, I think this is Bush's biggest vulnerability with the electorate as a whole. It is an impression he has to partly reverse and partly mitigate.

To reverse the impression, Bush has to talk about how he makes decisions in a way that reassures people and restores their confidence. He has to talk about ways that he has done the opposite of what people think he did in Iraq - that he has embraced a multilateral, diplomatic approach to North Korea, for example; that he has worked closely with the government of Pakistan, with positive results; that he worked with Britain and Italy towards a diplomatic breakthrough with Libya. The implicit message is: hey, we are doing lots of things, on lots of fronts, and many of them are working. We don't go to war as a first resort; we don't think force is the answer to all problems. Even if you think Iraq was a mistake, it's not part of some disturbing pattern. You can still trust my judgement.

He also has to admit that he can make mistakes. Bush has painted himself into a corner, in that he's convinced himself that ever admitting error makes him look weak and gives his enemies an opening to attack him. But by never admitting error, he comes off as arrogant and, worse, even dangerously messianic. Bush has to get out of that corner. And he should do it in good humor, not defensively.

This is a tough needle to thread, because Bush cannot repudiate the Iraq war and cannot repudiate the larger strategy. All the paleos who would like Bush to abandon his approach to the war might as well vote for another candidate; Bush cannot get off this train. If he repudiates his own core policies, he will not be re-elected. He knows this.

But he has to make the case for his policies, and for his larger strategic vision, in such a way that it reassures and inspires people, and doesn't scare them.

People are scared that Bush is ideologically inflexible and immune to contrary data. Bush has to show them that he still believes in his strategic vision, but that he's capable of adjusting to negative data and learning from mistakes. Then he can play up the contrast with John Kerry, a man with no vision, no interest in prosecuting the war, and who tries to have all sides of every issue.

Bush's strength is voters' perceptions that he is a man of strong character, willing to make tough decisions and stick with them. If he can reassure them about his judgement, then that strength will make a very powerful contrast with Kerry's weakness - the perception that he has no core convictions and avoids making decisions.

Still looking at things from Karen Hughes' perspective, Bush's secondary vulnerability is the perception that he is not really a "uniter, not a divider" or a "compassionate conservative" as he claimed to be in the 2000 campaign. Voters have noticed that Bush's policies tend to pass on party-line votes, and that the press considers Bush a hard-core ideological conservative, particularly on moral issues.

I think this is a very minor problem for Bush. Frankly, I think the charge of excessive partisanship cuts both ways, and that more people support Bush on social issues than oppose him. What I heard at the Democratic convention were attempts to downplay the social issues and accuse Bush of being extreme, not Democrats taking a strong stand of their own. To me, that means the Democrats think they are on the losing side of the issues.

So Bush should push the social issues, but he should be careful not to come off as scolding, cruel or "intolerant" in doing so. This is more a matter of tone than anything else, and I think Bush has less to worry about here than on the judgement question, but he could hurt himself if he doesn't get the tone right, and in a close election every little bit counts. I'm going to return to this question when I get to Karl Rove's view of the world.

Finally, I think Karen Hughes would say that Bush has an opportunity to pull a Bill Clinton circa 1996 or Reagan circa 1984, and present an overarching contrast of visions that makes him more appealing. Kerry's campaign is going to be almost entirely negative: a focus on what Bush has done wrong and how Kerry won't make those mistakes. Kerry's own policy prescriptions are going to be very limited and will not add up to a coherent vision. That's my impression from Kerry's speech, and Bush should help cement that impression by offering an overarching vision of his own.

I think the best catchphrase for this - and Bush has been using it lately - is "an ownership society." Bush should talk about Social Security reform, expanded universal IRAs and any other policy he can think of in those terms. He should highlight the growth in the investor class and the growth of homeownership under his Administration, and how his policies are responsive to this broad trend in American society.

Bush should also talk about foreign policy in grand terms, but not too grand; he has to reassure people that he has a sense of reality, that he isn't going to dream us into a Vietnam-like nightmare. But on domestic issues Bush should soar. Kerry likes to call himself an optimist, but he is a congenital pessimist like Dole was, and Bush should wrap that pessimism around his neck and strangle him with it.

So much for the Hughes view of the world. What about the Rove view?

Well, Rove is trying to assemble an electoral majority. So let's first look at where Bush's base is vulnerable, and where he has opportunities to extend it, geographically.

Bush is vulnerable in four areas of the country that are either part of his base or parts of the periphery that he needs to win for victory: the Southwest (Arizona and Colorado in his base, New Mexico in the periphery), the Border States (Arkansas and Tennessee in his base, Missouri and West Virginia in the periphery), the New South (Virginia and North Carolina in his base, Florida in the periphery), and the Great Lakes (Ohio in his base, Pennsylvania in the periphery; I consider Michigan beyond reach, but maybe I'm too pessimistic).

Bush has opportunity to expand into three areas of the country that were part of the solid Democratic base but are now vulnerable to Republican inroads. These are areas that were settled by Puritans, are largely white, and have a tradition of old-style Progressive politics (as in Fighting Bob Lafollette, not 1930s Communist front groups or contemporary liberals who don't like the L-word). Bush has a very serious shot at taking one or more of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, and a more distant shot at picking off Oregon or Washington, or Maine. (He also has a shot at New Hampshire, but that's a traditional GOP state that has been trending Democrat, so the story is very different.) I happen to think all of these states are more plausible targets than Michigan, California or Illinois, all of which went Republican in 1988 and all of which Bush spent time trying to win in 2000, to no avail. They are even further out of reach now than they were last time, and Bush should focus on more probable targets.

Let's take each geographic area in turn, and try to hypothesize why Bush is vulnerable, and how he can respond.

The Southwest is traditionally libertarian/conservative territory. But it has been getting more Democratic due to an influx of immigrants from Mexico and of internal in-migration of retirees and others looking for the good life (and these in-migrants bring their politics with them). If conservatives are energized, they can still carry Colorado and Arizona by compelling margins. (New Mexico is increasingly solidly Democratic, and probably beyond Bush's reach, because of demographic change.) But Southwestern conservatives have shown a significant amount of dissatisfaction with President Bush, over excessive spending and growth in government, but even more so because of immigration.

While Bush is still surely favored in both Arizona and Colorado (though not New Mexico), this is also the region where Bush will have the hardest time recovering lost ground, because of his position on the issues. The section of Bush's conservative base that is most pleased with his performance is the religious right; the sections that are least pleased are the small-government and paleo-right. (Of course, these "particles" overlap; don't quibble.) The latter is, relatively speaking, stronger in the Southwest relative to other parts of the Bush base. And, since Bush cannot change his spots at this late date, there is little he can do to mollify these people on the issues that they are mad at him about.

Bush cannot change his spots. He cannot reverse himself on immigration, even if it would be politically astute for a generic Republican to take a restrictionist position, because such a dramatic reversal would (a) be unconvincing; (b) undercut Bush's image as a man of principle; and (c) be political dynamite for the opposition given Bush's own statements in the past and the potential for racial demagoguery. The best he can do is announce some new security measures associated with border control and keeping out terrorists, and mention them in his speech. Apart from that, he should bury the issue, and that's not likely to be enough to reassure people that he won't resurrect it in a second term. And he cannot reverse himself on "big government conservatism" because this stance is a crucial part of his strategy to win in other key regions.

So the best Bush can do is emphasize those parts of his message and record that *will* resonate positively with Southwestern conservatives, and then try to make Kerry seem an unacceptable alternative. (These people will not vote *for* Kerry, but they might stay home if they don't fear Kerry will take away their guns, raise their taxes and otherwise bring about the ruination of the Republic.)

The core of that message: tax cuts. Bush should offer an unapologetic, Reaganite defense of his tax cuts, on economic and philosophical grounds, and call for further cuts. Secondarily, he should focus on other topics dear to the economic conservative base, such as tort reform (which is a particularly appealing issue in running against ex-trial lawyer Edwards).

Will this be enough? I don't know. Probably, because I think Bush has a margin of support in both the key states in the region. But if it isn't, I don't know there's much Bush can do to reverse a slide if he gets into real trouble.

The Border States region is a mixed bag. West Virginia is chronically depressed, as is Arkansas to a lesser extent; Tennessee is economically vibrant; and Missouri is really three or four different states rolled into one. What they share is a basic cultural conservatism that will be the bedrock of Bush's appeal. "God, guns and gays" is the way Howard Dean likes to mock the GOP platform, but each of these issues has profound appeal in these key states. I think the polls are going to show strengthening Bush numbers in each of these states over the next few weeks; the strengthening economy is going to make people more receptive to Bush generally, and his overall cultural stance is going to be much more popular that Kerry's. I think Bush's two biggest negative issues for parts of his conservative base - Iraq and immigration - will cut less ice here than elsewhere, especially once people understand Kerry's record.

In Missouri and Arkansas specifically, Bush is going to be concerned to keep black turnout relatively quiescent. This is not something Republicans like to talk about (who wants to suggest they are trying to *discourage* people from voting?) but it's part of the strategy. Would the GOP love to get black votes? Absolutely. Should they work to win these vote? Absolutely. Is it likely they'll get many? No. The likely result of negative campaigns against Kerry - or even of positive campaigns for Bush - in the black community is to reduce voter turnout, not produce Republican votes. Actual votes for Bush would be better, but they'll take lower enthusiasm for Kerry. Heck, if Kerry doesn't try to keep Buchananite voters sitting on their hands by sowing doubt about Bush, Kerry's not doing *his* job. Anyhow, Kerry has no strong connections in the black community. Neither does Bush, of course; but Gore did. And Gore got record turnout. Bush needs to get out the message, below the radar, that Kerry has nothing to say to African Americans. And he needs to get enough black leaders to think Bush is not so bad that they are not energized to work for Kerry. This absolutely matters; black turnout was crucial to making Missouri as close a race as it was last time. Bush can't afford a repeat. How does he do it? I'm not sure. The whole subject makes me a bit queasy, but I know it's part of the way the game is played. Anyhow, I'm not sure there's anything that goes into a mass-market appeal like the acceptance speech that really speaks to the issue. I can think of only two policy positions that would play well in the black community, and he should bring up both at least in passing: school choice and prison reform. But the speech isn't really the place to make this particular appeal; that needs to be done on a retail level.

Moving to the next area of the country, it is worrisome to any Republican that Bush is doing so poorly in the polls in Virginia and North Carolina. I'm not convinced this is especially Bush-specific. The conservative base in these states is very culturally attuned to Bush. Rather, I think we're seeing the results of demographic change, coupled with the effect of those two big issues negatives on part of Bush's base. Bush's strategy in these states is going to be similar to the Border States, but it's going to be modified somewhat because of the growth of the wealthier, culturally more liberal suburbs of D.C. and the research triangle. Bush cannot afford to write these areas off, so he can't alienate these voters with bare-knuckled cultural appeals; he has to wrap everything in a bit of gauze. It's with a view in part to suburban voters in these two states that Bush will revive his "compassionate conservatism" mantra and emphasize tolerance and respect even as he pushes issues like the FMA. The FMA is a touchy issue for Bush, because on the one hand it is the #1 energizer of a core part of his base - religious conservatives - but it turns off more moderate voters - even those opposed to redefining marriage to include same-sex couples - simply because it's an amendment to the Constitution. (I should know: I'm one of these more moderate voters opposed to same-sex marriage and opposed to the FMA.) Bush can't - and won't - drop the issue; among other things, he believes in it. And it's a potential vote-loser in key demographic groups and states. So he's got to sell it in a way that reassures. The best way to do that is to describe the FMA as a measure to protect marriage, and to embed the discussion in a larger discussion of efforts to shore up and strengthen marriage. If that's the context, Bush wins, relatively speaking; if the context is the "threat" from gays, Bush loses - big time. If he can play the FMA in a way that picks up enthusiasm in the more conservative rural and exurban parts of Virginia and North Carolina, without alienating folks in the D.C. suburbs and Raleigh-Durham, Bush will be in very good shape in these states. I think Bush should also focus strongly on his education record, and emphasize the contrast with Kerry's record and his reflexive support of the teachers' unions, because education is a winning issue for upscale "knowledge workers" and Bush has very high positives for a Republican on the issue.

Florida Bush should be pretty upbeat about. The polls show the race neck-and-neck, but I think Bush is in a structurally stronger position this time than last time, for four reasons, and in a weaker position only for one reason. He's stronger because: (1) the black vote was highly energized for Gore, and won't be as energized for Kerry; (2) the Jewish vote was highly energized for Gore/Lieberman, and won't be as energized for Kerry; (3) Jeb Bush has proved a popular governor, and was resoundingly reelected in 2002; he's in a much stronger position to help his brother than he was last time around; and (4) the economy in Florida has been quite vibrant, which helps the incumbent. The only reason I think Bush is in a weaker position is that the Cuban community is aging, and getting less obsessed with Castro as the next generation takes over, which over time will make them more willing to vote Democrat (they should, based on their economic achievement and their cultural/racial minority status, eventually assimilate to somewhere between the white and Asian voting pattern - that is to say, about evenly split between the parties), and last time around Elian was in the news, which energized Cubans for the Republicans, which won't be an issue this time. Net-net, I think Bush should be able to take Florida, and I think his pitch in the state will not vary meaningfully from his national pitch; it's a big state, with lots of segments, and he has to try to cover a lot of bases.

One other issue I should talk about with respect to the Border States and the New South states where Bush is potentially vulnerable is the over-extension of the American military. All of these states have large numbers of families with members serving overseas. People in the regular military and the National Guard are working harder, longer, and in more danger than they ever expected. Career soldiers and sailors and their families will support their Commander in Chief and, frankly, many will appreciate having a clear mission. But they will not appreciate being taken for granted. Kerry had a line in his speech about ending the "back-door draft" through the National Guard. Someone has done polling to come up with that line. Bush should be worried about it. Whether it's more pay or other benefits, Bush should be thinking seriously about the size of the military he *really* needs to keep operational performance high and keep our military families satisfied, and he should budget accordingly - and take action now, while there's still time to reap the political benefit. I'm frankly not clear why he hasn't done this already. He's certainly not averse to spending money.

Next: Ohio and Pennsylvania. These states have been big economic losers under Bush, and Kerry has noticed. Even as the polls turn against Kerry nationwide (and they are - Marist has them tied, Rasmussen has them tied, Gallup has Bush up by 6, ABC/Washington Post has Kerry up by 2, American Research Group has Kerry up by 4 . . . it's not a great picture for Kerry given that the news cycle over the next few weeks favors Bush) he continues to run strong in this critical region. Bush would like to be in a position where he's locked down traditionally Republican Ohio and is working on Pennsylvania and Michigan for insurance. Instead, Kerry has Michigan almost sewn up, he's leading by a decent margin in Pennsylvania, and he's making a credible play for Ohio.

If the Southwest is the region where Bush would have the hardest time recovering if he ever fell behind (though he's still ahead), the Great Lakes region is where Bush is furthest behind. What is he going to do to catch up?

The first thing he will do is focus on abortion. This region has a very large percentage of white Catholics, and the Democrats just nominated a man who flew back to Washington for a rare vote during his Presidential campaign to vote against the partial birth abortion bill. And this same candidate staged a convention where abortion was the topic that dared not speak its name. The Democrats have backed themselves into an untenable position on abortion: the party activists will not accept any leader who supports any legal restrictions on abortion, while the country has moved steadily in the direction of opposition to the practice. Bush should - and will - hammer them with it.

Kerry is so clearly out on the extreme end on this issue that Bush has the room to make centrist noises without alienating his hard-core base. And this is the tactic Bush should use to approach the Catholic vote in the Great Lakes region. He's not a hater; he's not out to divide people. He wants to do what's politically possible to protect innocent human life.

Economic issues are going to be very tough for Bush in this region of the country. They have lost manufacturing jobs, and it's not much of an answer to say that everyone is losing manufacturing jobs (even China), that this is a global phenomenon that ultimately benefits most people even if it causes some hardship. Bush tried to bribe these voters with steel tariffs; it didn't work (politically or economically) and promising more of the same isn't likely to work either. But at least Bush will have a bit of economic wind at his back as the jobs picture continues to improve at the margins.

Finally: the Progressive Puritan states: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Washington, Oregon and Maine. Kerry really needs to win all of these, though of course he could survive the loss of just one or maybe two if he sweeps the Great Lakes. Bush should make a serious play to take at least one away from the Democrats.

I think Bush's strongest case in this region is going to be the Karen Hughes case. It's very intriguing that these states have been trending Republican, specifically Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. I think the reason is that the GOP is now, to a considerable extent, the repository of the Progressive tradition. The Democrats in 2004 really are the party of reactionary liberalism, and that isn't the way these folks like their liberals. They like activist, reformist types like Russ Feingold and Paul Wellstone. They didn't take to Gore, and I don't think they'll take to cautious Kerry. They are natural progressives; they want to move forward, not backward. Some of the most innovative GOP governors - Tommy Thompson, most notably - came out of this region and this tradition. And Bush very much aligned himself with that wing of the GOP in 2000. Can he recapture that spirit this time around? I think so. This is the region of the country that will be most responsive to Bush's idealism in foreign affairs. He needs to dovetail that with a more coherent idealistic vision for domestic affairs. I also think Bush will play up the social issues in this region in the same way that I suggested he do in suburban Virginia and North Carolina: take a stand, but do it softly, caringly, not harshly as if responding to a threat. That will play as well with Swedish Lutherans in Minnesota as it does with German Catholics in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

That's my thinking. I think the Karen Hughes perspective matters more to the construction of a mass-market item like the convention acceptance speech, but Karl Rove will peek through here and there. In that regard, the most important objective of the speech is to get the party faithful excited. The tone should be humorous, confident, firm and committed, and it should lay out a clear agenda that the party supports. It should mention Ronald Reagan as much as possible. It should remind people of 9-11 right up front, damn the critics who will call it exploitation. If the party comes out of the convention pumped up to reelect George W. Bush, he'll have accomplished his main mission.

Scroll up for my draft of the speech.