It’s the War, Stupid
Michael Tomasky‘s opener in today’s Prospect:
It’s still possible that John Kerry could win — although, of course, anytime a liberal columnist opens his column with a phrase like that, it’s not a good sign.
No kidding. Given months of conventional wisdom that the race was essentially a toss-up but George Bush was nonetheless in dire trouble, we suddenly are at a point in the race where it looks as if he will coast to re-election. Certainly, the news hasn’t gone Kerry’s way in quite some time, what with a no bounce convention, a surprisingly effective insurgent advertising campaign by the Swift Boat vets, a much higher than expected Bush bounce from the GOP convention, and now the Rather fiasco, Kerry can’t catch a break.
Tomasky sees an odd paradox at work:
The problem begins with the fact that majorities of the public tend to agree with Democrats on the issues. This isn’t universally true, of course, but it’s true with regard to more issues (perhaps many more issues) than not. On health care, the environment, investment, education, just about everything except national defense, majorities lean toward the Democratic position.
This sounds like a good thing. But in fact, it’s an incredibly bad thing, because it leads Democrats to believe that they can win on the issues.
He argues that, in reality, Democrats get pummeled because Republicans are inordinately skilled at turning attention away from substantive policy discussions and into a referendum on character. He goes on, in sum detail, to explain how the GOP created–falsely, in his view–an impression of Kerry the Flip-Flopper.
Kevin Drum spots the rather glaring hole in this argument:
Hmmm. “Everything except national defense.” Does that suggest something?
It should. Yes, Bill Clinton was unusually articulate and charismatic, but he also ran in a pair of elections in which national defense wasn’t an issue. During the 80s, when the Cold War was uppermost in people’s minds, Republican candidates won three elections in a row. And in 2000, George Bush won a squeaker only by convincing people he was a compassionate centrist who was practically a Democrat himself.
As brilliant a campaigner as Bill Clinton was, he would not have been able to defeat Bush–a horrible campaigner–in 1992 had the Cold War still been underway. The GOP didn’t grasp until far too late that nobody cared that Clinton had dodged the draft, since the commander-in-chief role was hardly uppermost in their minds. Bush 41 was a solid wartime president but did not inspire confidence in his ability to manage the economy, the role that became paramount in that election. In 1992, Clinton convinced people he was no Michael Dukakis and in 2000 the future Bush 43 convinced people he was no Newt Gingrich.
It’s all about 9/11, Iraq, terrorism, and national security, baby. This election is going to be won on that issue, and Kerry needs to convince the country that he can handle it better than Bush. And really, considering the botch Bush has made of national security, that shouldn’t be all that hard.
Bottom line: Republicans aren’t avoiding the issues. It’s just that their signature issue happens to be the one people care most about this year. Democrats had better figure that out pronto.
Agreed. Tomasky is correct that the Bush campaign has managed to cherrypick Kerry’s record to make Kerry’s past inconsistencies appear more stark than they really are. But that’s hardly unusual; it’s what campaigns do. But Kerry has been amazingly accomodating in doing everything he can to reinforce that image with respect to the Iraq War. Ironically, Kerry’s position papers on the war (and foreign policy in general) are quite reasonable, if largely indistinguishable from the Bush policy. Yet, his on again, off again support for the war effort is the most bizarre effort I’ve ever seen in a major party nominee on the central issue of the day.