HANDICAPPING 2004

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 can̢۪t 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, he̢۪ll be free to focus his entire campaign on shoring up his weakness: the economy.

Democrats also need to be able to say “I told you so” if the war doesn’t proceed as Bush hopes it does. For the most part, Americans don’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 “no,” they are going to have to be able to say, with some precision, what they would have done differently. “We are not safer because of President Bush’s war on terrorism,” Dean declared the other day. The good doctor needs to explain how he’d do better.

He doesn’t think this will fly:

How will the war on terrorism play there? Well, if it̢۪s framed the way it̢۪s 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)

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Steven says:

    If the known issue of terrorism remains the issue I think it will be, I don’t think there is any Democrat, even the three you named, who will be able to win on that issue. Its like I said a while back on my blog, Bush is currently like the Superbowl MVP on this topic, and even if a Democratic candidate cold be said to have the same potential to succeed as Bush, the Coach (the voters) has no reason to bench the MVP for a guy with “potenial” unless something happens to demonstrate that the MVP has lost his “stuff”.

  2. James Joyner says:

    No, I agree that Bush is the clear frontrunner and certainly expect him to win. But if you get a candidate who basically says “me too” on the terrorism issue, the advantage is somewhat minimized, allowing the Democrat to run on the economy and domestic issues as well. I still think it’s a huge long shot, just not impossible.

  3. Clio says:

    Funny, I got into a huge fight last weekend with an old friend (unrepentent lefty (him) v. reborn hawk who still thinks of herself as a Dem (me)) about this very subject. I agree with you James–it’s way too early for Dems to throw in the towel, but all too typical I have to say. Who can predict what will actually sway voters next year? How do you weigh security against literally EVERYTHING else (environment, social equity, mil. spending, and esp. economic meltdown)? If the Dems put up a guy who is credible on nat’l security and BETTER than GWB on most else, I will go with him. Here’s the trick: he needs to NOT slag off W on the war on Terror (ala Graham) but say “he’s okay, I can do better.” People will resent the hell out of the Dems if they make it appear that we have all been suckered by W’s team into believing we are safer when we are not. He’s a fool and you’re all fools for going along with him. Bad strategy.

    I could go on, but we’ll leave it at that for now. Many months of bloviating ahead.

  4. joy says:

    That’s a big IF in terms of wether or not the Dems will nominate someone credible on the subject of national security. They simply must be able to be able to do something other than criticize Bush about the subject.

  5. James Joyner says:

    No doubt on the big IF–that’s my point as to the primary electorate. The candidates most appealing to the “base” are the least likely to appeal to the swing voters who will decide the election in November 2004. Both parties have this problem, of course, but it’s more of a problem for the Democrats during times of national security concern.

  6. Dean Esmay says:

    You’re absolutely right. It’s far too early for Dems to give up. But, of course, they aren’t going to give up. They’re just feeling demoralized.

    Now, to be clear: it is 90% likely that I will vote for Bush. Not only because of his masterful handling of the War On Terror, but also because of his excellent handling of the economic disasters that landed in his lap. He’s done a phenomenal job so far as I’m concerned, and I really like and trust him.

    But with all that said, there’s still the possibility that I could vote for someone else. There’s also the possibility that Bush will die in office, that some scandal will ruin him, etc. Never say never, nothing is ever a given in politics.