Douglas MacKinnon, Bob Dole’s former press secretary, argues that Bush is a virtual shoe-in:
In the past few weeks, I have spoken with a number of politically experienced Democrats. The two questions I’ve asked them: “What do you think of President Bush’s chances in 2004, and why?”
Publicly, they would state Mr. Bush is in trouble. But privately, to a person, they say the election is all but over, and he will win.
Their rationale, pure and simple, is terrorism. These Democrats know the American people believe that Mr. Bush can protect them against terrorism better and more forcefully than the Democrats, and that protecting the homeland trumps economic issues or any other wedge issue the Democratic nominee may come up with.
The current rhetoric of the nine candidates now running for the Democratic nomination would have the American people believe that Mr. Bush, our intelligence agencies and our military have failed in the war against terrorism. That is their rhetoric, but many Americans (including Democratic voters) aren’t buying it.
Furthermore, trying to undercut this advantage makes the Democrats look even worse:
Any yet they will give little or no credit, thanks or gratitude to our special forces teams, CIA operatives, FBI agents and thousands of other Americans who are fanned out across the world systematically hunting down and eliminating terrorist threats to our nation and the world.
Have the politics of presidential campaigns and the hate of some in the media for Mr. Bush become so pervasive that these Democratic candidates and some in the media would tell these valiant Americans (or their next of kin) that they have failed because a fanatic blew himself up in front of an unprotected restaurant in Morocco?
While taking a less harsh tone, Howard Fineman agrees, up to a point:
I can see why the Democrats think they need to take the offensive. They canÃ¢€™t afford to cede foreign policy and defense as issues entirely, even if Bush is highly regarded for his handling of both. They think they need to make him spend at least some effort defending that ground. Otherwise, heÃ¢€™ll be free to focus his entire campaign on shoring up his weakness: the economy.
Democrats also need to be able to say Ã¢€œI told you soÃ¢€ if the war doesnÃ¢€™t proceed as Bush hopes it does. For the most part, Americans donÃ¢€™t really care about the fine points of international diplomacy. What they are going to care about next year is simple enough: Are we safer than we were on September 11, 2001? If Democrats are going to argue that the answer is Ã¢€œno,Ã¢€ they are going to have to be able to say, with some precision, what they would have done differently. Ã¢€œWe are not safer because of President BushÃ¢€™s war on terrorism,Ã¢€ Dean declared the other day. The good doctor needs to explain how heÃ¢€™d do better.
He doesn’t think this will fly:
How will the war on terrorism play there? Well, if itÃ¢€™s framed the way itÃ¢€™s been recently, the answer is: not very well for the Democrats. I happened to be in Louisville the other day, and Democrats I knew were still talking about a P.R. campaign by local Republicans to drum up support for Bush and the war on Iraq.
This is all very interesting and, as far as it goes, I certainly agree with both assessments. Still, I’d make the standard disclaimer: the election is a long time away.
The main problem for the Democrats in ’04, as I see it, is their base. The people likely to turn out for the primaries, and thus choose the nominee, are much more drawn to the Howard Deans of the world than is the public at large. Still, if Joe Lieberman, John Kerry, Dick Gephardt–or, even Bob Graham–emerges as the nominee, they’ll have some credibility on the terrorism issue. The way for the Democrats to win is to neutralize the issue as best they can rather than carping at the way Bush is handling the war. If the Democrats nominate a plausible candidate, there will be plenty of time to position him on the fight against terrorism. Almost any major party nominee starts with 40% of the popular vote, so it’s never over this early.
(Hat tip: RealClear Politics)