Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Thinking about the election
Part 1 – the problem

Ever since I heard last week that the Republicans planned on having their convention the week before 9/11 next year I’ve been pondering ways to counter it. On the face of it, doing so appears to give them a great advantage.

Bush will go straight from the convention to the ceremonies marking 9/11. The convention will make him the top news story for about five days. The press will feel that the 9/11 remembrance is too hallowed to allow it to be marred by political coverage, so they won’t give time anything the Democratic candidate says for another three to five days. Bush, of course will keep his face in the middle of all the ceremonies. In running the two together he gets to monopolize the media for over a week. If he chooses to mark the occasion by declaring war on some hapless Middle Eastern country, he may get even longer.

Besides giving him a media monopoly, the two events will allow Bush to rise to a commanding position in the polls. The usual convention bounce will be followed by the irrational lift that he gets whenever he can play wartime leader. David S. Broder in last Sunday’s Washington Post points out how effective this leadership boost can be. A mid-April poll by Public Opinion Strategies gave Bush a 68 percent approval score.
Only 4 percent of those approving said it was because of Bush's economic policies. Only 13 percent said it was because he had prevented additional attacks. Even though the poll was taken days after the fall of Baghdad, only 23 percent said it was because of his direction of the war. Fully 52 percent said they approved because of "his general personal strength and sense of leadership."

Any Democrat or leftie who follows the polls has noticed with frustration over the last year that in almost every poll Bush scores far higher in general approval or on leadership than he does on any concrete issue. In a Gallup poll released just today, 54 percent say he is not paying enough attention to the economy, 47 percent think his tax cuts are a bad idea, 48 percent think he is out of touch with the problems of normal Americans, yet 70 percent approve of the way he is doing his job.

Bush benefited from 9/11 to an extent that is positively obscene. He naturally benefited from the rally-around-the-leader effect. But that’s not the only advantage he gained. The attacks on top of the already weak economy, created a general sense of anxiety and insecurity in society. When people feel insecure they look for something stable. The very traits that made Bush look silly or contemptible before 9/11—his stubbornness and lack of imagination, his pompous and corny speaking style, his humorlessness—could now be recast as firmness, strength, and somberness. By constantly harping on how vulnerable we are through alerts, high profile arrests, saber rattling, and actual military action, the administration stokes that anxiety. By creating a constant state of emergency, they stifle any challenge to his actions. The “dissent equals treason” meme has been well planted in the American consciousness over the last year and a half.

So, the general election season, which usually runs from Labor Day to Election Day, will be cut by nearly a third, Bush will begin with over a week of media monopoly and a commanding lead in the polls, and the Democratic challenger will be faced with a general perception that there is something unseemly about being the first to break the funereal somberness of the 9/11 season by bringing up politics or by denigrating our wartime leader. Could things be worse for the challenger? Yes. The press will long since have decided what the narrative for the election is to be. It’s very possible that that narrative will be “invulnerable incumbent versus sacrificial goat.” If it all turn out like this, Bush will have a cakewalk.

Is there any point in even holding the election? It doesn’t have to happen this way. In the next few installments, I’ll suggest some ways the Democrats could level the playing field with the great uniter and mention a few ways the Republicans could help.

Update: I suppose I should point out the one other advantage Bush will have going into the general election. His campaign expects to raise 200 million dollars. With little or no primary fight, they can sit on that money and and only use it where it does the most damage. If they want, they can use it all in the general and spend 30 million a week for the shortened campaign after 9/11.

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