Who is the post-Bush Republican Party?
In the New Republic online, Reihan Salam (an early and appreciative correspondent to this blog) has a well-written two-part series on the scene in the loser's locker room Tuesday night and beyond -- that is, the fate of Karl Rove, Chuck Hagle, the neocons, Rumsfeld, etc if Bush loses, and of Howard Dean, John Edwards, moveon.org, George Soros and other Democratic players if Kerry loses.
No doubt, it will be ugly either way. But in reading the segment on the Republicans, there seemed to be something missing: who will be doing the punishing? If there are recriminations against a Rove or, as Salam suggests, against Hagel and Senator Lugar for allowing their mild dissents on Iraq to be used for Kerry's purposes, just who is going to dish those recriminations out? Tom DeLay, delivering orders to his henchmen on a phone handset across a Lexan wall? Dennis Hastert? Bill Frist? Dick Cheney? All will be implicated in the meltdown of what had been, if handled correctly, a rare opportunity to hold the presidency and both houses of Congress for almost a decade. There will surely be a period of chaos, and that means that if people like Lugar decide to cooperate with Kerry in a limited way, there may be no one to punish them.
This is one reason I don't fully agree with the widely held view that governance will be a mess either way and that "the climate will be more poisonous if Kerry is elected," as Sam Rosenfeld put it on Tapped, referring specifically to things I had written. (I'll try to comment more fully on Sunday.) In 1993, the Republican Party was firmly under the control of Dole and Gingrich. They could issue the order: give Clinton nothing, concede nothing even if you agree with him. In the wake of a Bush defeat, and with DeLay's legal troubles, I don't think there's anyone to issue that order who would be taken seriously. That leaves the Hagels, Lugars, Snowes Voinoviches, and McCains as free agents, able to be coopted by Kerry if he understands that he has to and understands how to.
On the other hand, even though it became apparent a year ago that there is no such thing as "the Democratic Party establishment," there is a core of leadership that clearly survives a Kerry loss: not Terry McAuliffe, but Pelosi, Daschle or Reid, the Clintons and their circle, the leadership of some of the new organizations, etc. There will be some chaos, and some recriminations, and I'm sure everyone will decide that Kerry was a terrible candidate. (Although show me another who would have made fewer mistakes and performed flawlessly for four and a half hours of high-wire debate.) But there will also be the unbelievable unity in opposition that the party has found -- there will be no DLC-led infighting -- and an understanding that it was never going to be easy to win an election against the incumbent who took us through 9/11 and Karl Rove's slime machine. A Republican loss will be the end of that party's current ascendancy; a Kerry loss will be no more than a severe setback on the Democrats'.
I don't have much of a track record with electoral predictions, so I'll just endorse this one, from Mike Lux. Mike's one of the invisible geniuses of Democratic politics, one of the very few people who can bridge the worlds of outside activist groups, donors, the party, and the realm of ideas -- without losing sight of his core values. Long ago, Mike was describing the outlines of the "citizen-based movement, independent of the party, that?s integrated, that?s effective" that Harold Meyerson proclaimed a done deal in the LA Weekly a few days ago.
Lux's prediction is basically that Kerry does four points better than the last polls in most of the swing states, which would result in a pretty solid electoral college win, and he's also reasonably optimistic about the Senate races outside of the South. That's about where I see things, Osama or No-sama. It's not because I believe in the iron law that undecideds break for the challenger, because in presidential races they obviously don't always. But the particular dynamics of this race are such that Bush has essentially demanded an all or nothing choice, and if a voter hasn't signed on yet, I don't know what's going to make them. (Although for every ultra-thoughtful undecided voter interviewed in the paper today, there's one whose logic is utterly impenetrable, like the woman interviewed last week who thought that Bush would do more to keep down prescription drug costs and she hadn't heard Kerry mention that.)
The real question is still turnout and new voters, and that's where the four points will come from. I had my doubts, but it does all seem to be coming together. Let's look at the alternative argument. I've started reading the right-wing blog redstate.org, a dailykos clone, although humorless and entirely without subtlety, and here's their case against Kerry's chances:
Kerry is running even in New Jersey and Hawaii, two Democratic states. He has pulled out of Colorado. He and Bush are focusing on the same core states, but Kerry is having to defend more. In addition, and a weakness of Kerry's campaign, grassroots activism has been outsourced to 527 organizations. Coordination with the candidate is illegal. The Bush campaign, on the other hand, has had an iron hand clenched around its 72, now 96, hour program. It knows who will be voting on a block by block basis in most, if not all, of the swing states.
If Bush can turn out his voters, he will win.
The interesting thing about this analysis is that it is demonstrably false in each and every particular: New Jersey is not in play, and Bush is still well below 50% in Hawaii, a weird glitch which the Democrats dealt with in time. Colorado would have been a bonus, and might still be. The only states Kerry is still seriously "defending" that Gore won are Wisconsin and Iowa, whereas Bush is "defending" the much larger states of Ohio and Florida as well as Nevada and New Hampshire. And while I have always worried about the "outsourcing" of political activity to independent groups, and especially about disconnecting advertising from the candidate, I have seen absolutely no sign that it has been any kind of a problem at all in the voter turnout activities. I'm sure that Americans Coming Together and the other 527s will ultimately turn out to be a mixed bag, with some areas a mess and others very strong. But none of the problems that I have heard about seem related to lack of coordination with the Kerry campaign, and there are many reasons to believe that the effort is much stronger for being able to operate independently. It is just so clear cut that the more people vote, especially new and infrequent voters, Democrats will win, that there is no need at all for any kind of coordination on message.
I'm sure it's true that the Bush campaign's "96 Hour Program" for voter turnout is much more tightly controlled and that they know their voters. But they have to. Even if Rove's fantasy of 4 million missing white evangelicals who didn't vote in 2000 because they were turned off by the news of Bush's DUI were totally true, the Bush campaign would still have to find those voters and identify them. The potential pool of missing voters for Kerry is much larger, and you don't need as precise a list: increasing the number of new voters, young voters, African-American and Hispanic voters, and women will serve the purpose quite well, even if a few Bush voters get caught in the net.
p.s. When I first posted this, I didn't link to this historical analysis from earlier in the week that demonstrated that undecideds don't always break for the challenger in presidential elections, which raised some questions. I found this analysis generally persuasive, though not relevant. The best example of an incumbent getting the break is Ford in 1976, who mounted a ferocious comeback which despite his loss is still considered one of the most successful moves in modern politics. He almost got out of the hole Dick Cheney and Dick Nixon had dug for him. The other examples are mostly cases where a challenge failed to materialize, such as Stevenson in 1956, McGovern in 1972, and Mondale in 1984. By the last weekend, it was pretty obvious they were losers and undecideds went with the winner. But those examples don't apply here, and neither does Ford. Ford was the incumbent, but he was carrying Nixon's baggage, and as he separated himself and voters became comfortable with him on his own, he got a second look. Bush's baggage is his own.
If there is a wolf...
I just watched the new Bush ad -- "Wolves." The species has been changed to protect the innocent, but otherwise the video, depicting a pack of wolves moving quietly through the woods and then assembling for attack, is a slavish copy of a Reagan ad from 1984: "If There is a Bear."
"If There is a Bear" is one of the most striking political ads of all time, weird and ironic, one of a handful of political ads ever to operate purely on metaphor. Remember how dull all television ads were in 1984 -- most were pretty direct plop-plop-fizz-fizz pitches. An ad like this would certainly catch your attention. Now most political ads are deadly straightforward, while a good number of commercial advertisements operate through indirection, metaphor, parody, or some twist to get your attention.
Here's the transcript of the bear ad:
There is a bear in the woods.
For some people the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all.
Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious. And dangerous.
Since no one can really be sure who is right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear?
If there is a bear.
The narrator was (I've learned today) the gentle-voiced Hal Riney, who did a lot of car commercials and was familiar and reassuring. And the ad didn't just spread fear; it balanced Reagan's "Morning in America" campaign with a logical argument for a strong defense posture. And the gentle, odd conclusion, "if there is a bear," even if totally out of synch with the first assertion, suggested that there was still cause for optimism, that there might be no danger from the Soviet Union (as we now know there was not, at that time), but that we were prepared for anything.
And, of course, there was a genuine difference of opinion between Reagan and Mondale on defense spending.
Contrast the Bush ad, narrated by a woman with a "he's calling from inside your house" voice:
In an increasingly dangerous world...Even after the first terrorist attack on America...John Kerry and the liberals in Congress voted to slash America's intelligence operations.
By 6 billion dollars.
Cuts so deep they would have weakened America's defenses.
And weakness attracts those who are waiting to do America harm.
Not much subtlety, not much optimism. Plus, a pack of lies to go with the pack of wolves. (Bush and Porter Goss proposed even bigger cuts, and of course overextending our military through bad planning in Iraq has done more to weaken America's defenses than any budget cut.) The Reagan ad was brilliant, subtle and charming. This is just Cheneyism: Vote for Bush, or wolves will come and eat you in your bed. (Or, as The Onion put it, "I, Dick Cheney, will personally enter your house and rip you limb from limb.")
Googling for "if there is a bear" and Reagan, I noticed that the conservatives have been pushing for a copy of the Bear Ad all year. Fred Barnes basically wrote them a script in February, Mona Charen pitched it at the end of a column in March, the conservative bloggers at Infinite Monkeys pitched it earlier this month. All of them had a slightly more subtle idea.
Finally, there really does seem to be a creativity gap this year between Bush's ads, which are really lame, old-fashioned hit-you-over-the-head pitches (leaving aside the fear-mongering) and some of the ads for Kerry and those created by independent groups, which manage to be, like the bear-in-the-woods ad, simultaneously clever and emotionally moving.
A Right-Wing Campaign Without a Conservative Message
In re-reading my own post about conservatism, I realized I had written something that might sound odd: I wrote that if Bush wins, "after a vicious campaign that offered no clear and persuasive conservative vision, it will be no easier for Bush to enact a conservative mandate." And then I was reading the very useful Democracy Corps analysis based on their latest poll, which emphasizes just how much Bush has chosen to run a campaign that pitches for his own conservative base, rather than the middle.
Doesn't this seem paradoxical? How can a campaign that goes for the right-wing base nonetheless fail to present a conservative message that, if he's elected, will be a mandate? And yet, I think that is exactly what is happening.
It's unarguable that the campaign has been pitched to the right, particularly the social conservatives. I heard a Republican pollster complain the other day that he kept pointing out to the White House that they already had 94% of the vote of groups such as white evangelicals -- there were no more votes to be gained there -- but that the White House kept coming back to that. As a cold-blooded political strategist, I think that's pretty crazy in and of itself.
But how much crazier is it to do all that and then have nothing to govern from? Bush's pitch to the base is entirely personality, his own resoluteness, faith, etc. plus a healthy dose of hate politics. He's not promising more tax cuts, just threatening that Kerry will take them away. He's not promising to shrink government. And the conservative things he does want to do, like reduce environmental protections and privatize Social Security, he actually has to deny. The things he doesn't deny, like a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, he's plainly not going to do.
I think Bush and Rove might have had more success in gaining a mandate for conservative policies, ironically, if they had pursued a more centrist path or tone. But history will soon tell.
American Conservatism, R.I.P.
Four significant reads of the last two weeks:
1. Robert George's wonderfully well-written piece in the New Republic on the reasons that he -- a serious third-wave movement conservative -- could not vote for George Bush.
2. Marshall Wittman's article on the reasons he -- a serious movement conservative of the McCain faction, and an advocate for the long-abandoned concept of "national-greatness conservatism" -- will not vote for George Bush.
3. Benjamin Wallace-Wells's superb article on the self-destruction of the Republican party, in the Washington Monthly
4. The ongoing internal debates of Daniel Drezner, Andrew Sullivan and other independent conservatives as they come to terms with voting for Kerry.
Two weeks before the election, it is too easy to read these texts only through the lens of whether they might have some impact on the election. But that's not the point. Even if 10% of the New Republic's 100,000 readers are genuinely undecided, what are the chances that they all live in Florida and Ohio?
But taken together, these articles prove that one outcome is no longer left to be decided in November: Even if Bush is reelected by a sizable margin, the intellectual enterprise known as modern American conservatism has been utterly shattered and bankrupt. This is not Bush's achievement alone, but the Republican Congress's as well, the result of a long era of decadence and self-dealing that began with conservatism's triumph in 1994.
For the last several years, liberals have bemoaned the idea that conservatives seemed to have a coherent, relatively simple philosophy: small government, low taxes, free trade, strong defense but non-interventionist foreign policy. But what is left of conservatism now except tax cuts, especially tax cuts that benefit particular financial interests? Tax cuts are not conservatism. They are not a coherent worldview. They were a part of the conservative philosophy, but not an end in themselves. Stripped out of the larger framework of smaller government, of modesty about the possibilities of change, of respect for tradition and history, and of the sense that central government can be oppressive as easily as it can be liberating, tax cuts amount to nothing more than a material benefit for a few, and a long-term liability for everyone else. Put another way, imagine that the animating ideas of liberalism were reduced to this promise: "We will create a new cabinet-level agency every single year." That's not a vision that can attract deep loyalty, and neither is the promise of a tax cut every year.
If Bush loses, serious conservatives, with the possible exception of extreme social conservatives, will have to ask themselves what they gained from four years of unfettered power, and ten years of domination of American politics. Government is "bigger" by every measure, and more intrusive. A pet idea, Social Security privatization, was actually discredited by their president's incompetence. Younger voters are increasingly turned off by the social conservatism, so the movement is not expanding its base. A huge new entitlement was created. The federal role in education expanded. And poor planning and dishonesty over Iraq weakened our defense, our credibility, and made it impossible to set a clear standard for when we would intervene and when not.
All the tax cuts have done is to postpone the day we pay for these things.
And if Bush wins, all this will still be true. Especially after a vicious campaign that offered no clear and persuasive conservative vision, it will be no easier for Bush to enact a conservative mandate. The corrupt short-term political bargains will only continue. If Bush wins, Karl Rove may be deemed a tactical genius, but the chances of a significant ideological realignment of American politics are lower than at any time since 2000. A smart conservative would surely prefer Bush to lose, if only to get the long process of intellectual rebuilding started right away.
For non-conservatives, is this cause for celebration? Unfortunately, it is not. First, the meltdown of conservatism is not the same as the resurgence of liberalism. In many bizarre and ironic ways, Bush-DeLayism has managed to equally discredit the idea of an active government in a way that will damage any effort to restore it in the future. When seniors get through figuring out the Medicare law, are they going to want to hear about yet another government program? And when President Kerry has to fight like hell to raise taxes, for no purpose other than to reduce the deficit and perhaps buy some time before the employer-based health system collapses, people won't feel they are getting any benefit from their higher taxes. How are they going to feel about government then?
Second, even if there were a resurgence of liberalism, our country still needs a healthy, responsible conservatism. Brad deLong has often argued that it's healthy to have liberal governments that expand programs and spending balanced by conservative ones that bring that spending under control. I think there's a case for that. But fiscal policy is not the whole story.
The various conservative apostates all define conservatism in their own ways. Marshall Wittman feels the betrayal of "National Greatness Conservatism," an idea which many of its better-known promoters, such as David Brooks and William Kristol, seem to have merely flirted with and which really has more in common with turn-of-the-last-century progressivism. Robert George defines conservatism as small government and "accountability in government," arguing that Bush-DeLayism has hurt both causes. True, but the right has no particular claim to accountability in government. Most progress toward greater accountability -- such as sunshine laws, FOIA, campaign finance reform, civil service -- has come from the left or from centrist reformers.
It surprising to me that these conservatives seem to miss one of the most distinctive contributions of conservatism: not just "small government" but its urging to be modest about the degree to which human behavior can be modified by law or other collective decisions, and to be respectful of the role that tradition, custom, religion, greed, etc. play in all of human life. I've always liked Senator Moynihan's aphorism: ""The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself."
Bush-DeLayism's greatest betrayal of conservatism is in its rejection of this modesty about social scheming. Because of its corruption and incompetence, their practice has consisted of ever more complicated schemes of incentives and penalties to change behavior: No Child Left Behind, for example, whose main flaw is not that its underfunded, but that it tries to micromanage local schools through pokes and prods from a set of rules set in Washington. The Medicare bill and the Bush health plans, which attempt to incentivize one thing or another, and are horribly contrived even if you believe that the combination of Health Savings Accounts and catastrophic plans will improve American health care and not destroy it. The various contrivances of the "Ownership Society." And, of course, the grand vision of democracy in the Middle East, which the White House seems to have stumbled into in spite of Bush's vow of "humility" in foreign policy, and would now like to get out of.
Of all the conservative thinkers out there, including many such as George Will who are deeply rooted in this Burkean tradition, I have not seen any who have shown much understanding of this betrayal. The exception is a writer who I have sometimes given a hard time, Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post. Her column a couple weeks ago, "'Ownership Society' or Snake Oil?"
seemed the clearest expression of this strain of conservative caution and respect. This is the aspect of conservatism that I believe will be most missed in the wake of its intellectual bankruptcy.
I recognize, though, that I am not a conservative, and have about as much right to offer my opinion about what American conservatives should think or say as I do about whether the Catholic mass should be in Latin or English. But I've learned a lot from conservative writing and thinking, and I am very serious in believing that we will be worse off without its insights.
The Bad CEO Gets Religion
A lot of things in Ron Suskind's article on Bush deserves a very close reading and will surely draw extensive, thoughtful commentary over the next week or two. It is amazing how Suskind has parlayed his access to just two marginalized figures from the Bush White House -- John d'Iulio and Paul O'Neill -- into the closest thing to a real inside view of the administration. Most attention will surely be paid to the sentences in which White House officials dismiss critics as representatives of "the reality-based community," and of course his promise to a mega-donor luncheon that he would privatize Social Security in a second term has already triggered the pre-written press releases from the Kerry campaign.
What interested me most about the article was that it resolved a puzzle about the administration that seems to have come up in a half-dozen conversations recently. I've tried to expand on the managerial argument for the profound domestic and international failures. Based on no knowledge at all except what I've read in Suskind, Woodward, etc, I have always imagined that the president is one of those bad managers who is so focused on making the decision ("I'm the one who decides") and on short, conclusive meetings that he doesn't allow a full airing of information to come out, or to hear disagreements. The meeting that in the Clinton White House would have stretched into two hours, blowing the entire day's schedule but ultimately leading to a smarter result, is in the Bush White House "resolved" when the CEO speaks, and everyone leaves the room, most of them a little doubtful about the choice but loyal to the commander-in-chief. A lot of people I've talked to think that managerial analysis is short-sighted: "It's religion. It's got something to do with religion and fundamentalism," they respond.
I always had my doubts about the it's-all-about-religion argument. It didn't seem to fit with Bush's conduct as governor, or what I knew of his life. And, as Amy Sullivan pointed out, if you're so darn religious, why do you never, ever seem to attend church? I know that there is an aspect of evangelical protestantism in which the church as the community of believers is far less important than one's individual faith, but still -- to never go to church, and yet to be considered the most profoundly religious of American presidents?
Suskind's article largely confirms my speculation about Bush's managerial style: Doesn't ask many direct or penetrating questions. Limits sharply the number of people who have access to him. Reaches decisions abruptly, and then treats doubts or alternative views as disloyalty, etc. And as a result, he has wound up way, way over his head. Here's the priceless paragraph:
Considering the trials that were soon to arrive, it is easy to overlook what a difficult time this must have been for George W. Bush. For nearly three decades, he had sat in classrooms, and then at mahogany tables in corporate suites, with little to contribute. Then, as governor of Texas, he was graced with a pliable enough bipartisan Legislature, and the Legislature is where the real work in that state's governance gets done. The Texas Legislature's tension of opposites offered the structure of point and counterpoint, which Bush could navigate effectively with his strong, improvisational skills.
But the mahogany tables were now in the Situation Room and in the large conference room adjacent to the Oval Office. He guided a ruling party. Every issue that entered that rarefied sanctum required a complex decision, demanding focus, thoroughness and analytical potency.
For the president, as Biden said, to be acutely aware of his weaknesses -- and to have to worry about revealing uncertainty or need or confusion, even to senior officials -- must have presented an untenable bind.
And the solution, in addition to tightening the circle even more, was the turn to religion. Suskind quotes the Jim Wallis of the liberal religious organization Sojourners (an odd source, but he seems to have had more interaction with Bush than one might expect): ''When I was first with Bush in Austin, what I saw was a self-help Methodist, very open, seeking,'' Wallis says now. ''What I started to see at this point  was the man that would emerge over the next year -- a messianic American Calvinist. He doesn't want to hear from anyone who doubts him.''
So that's the answer: It's the bad CEO, first, but his solution for the crisis he's created is a turn to an ever more absolutist religious certainty. Religious faith is not a constant anchor in his life, as it was for Jimmy Carter and to a lesser degree Clinton and I think also, based on his fascinating answer the other night, Kerry. Rather, it is a quick fix for an untenable situation, with one piece of religion -- Calvinist certainty -- pulled out of the whole and used to deal with a secular problem. I don't sleep better knowing that, but I'm a little less confused.
updates on Ventura and Sinclair
I love having comments here, because it gives instant feedback if I get something wrong or to overlook a point. A couple things that came up recently in the comments:
First, it's been pointed out that I don't know anything about Minnesota politics, and that Jesse Ventura is -- as was pointed out on the blog of Brown University Democrats -- about as popular in the state as Bill Buckner in Boston. I had assumed Ventura would still have some of his capacity to reach the younger, infrequent voters who were responsible for his 1998 victory, but apparently I was wrong.
And an interesting, very packed comment about Sinclair Broadcasting, from "fatbear":
Sinclair is desperate, on the cusp of destruction (self-caused). They have constructed a classic over-leveraged multi-station group, with a debt/equity ratio over 7:1, and interest rates tied to (now rising) LIBOR and a EBIDTA/debt ratio. They either are allowed to own more stations and operate/own more duopolies, or they collapse under the weight - that's why the stock has gone down ~70%, and that's why they MUST have a Repub FCC. Running the show is a chip to be cashed in in that case; they can't survive if the Dems win, so any Dem FCC threat is akin to "multiple life sentences to be served consecutively."
The basic finances reported here are accurate, although I don't know enough about the industry to know whether owning more stations would save the company or not. Assuming this is generally correct, this is a good example of the kind of company that the Bush administration tends to like: not brilliant entrepreneurs, but rent-seekers, people skilled at manipulating the regulations of highly-regulated or government-dependent industries. The real entrepreneurs of the New Economy, those who can make a business work whether the FCC is rigging the game in their favor or not, are neither the beneficiaries nor the prominent backers of the Bush-DeLay machine.
An interesting sidenote to this, which I learned only recently: the FCC is a weirdly constructed agency. Commissioners have terms that run out at the end of a congressional session, after which they continue to serve until the president replaces them, and the chair serves at the pleasure of the president, although his or her membership on the commission is subject to Senate confirmation. Anyway, what that means is that sometimes it takes a president a long time to get control of the FCC -- it took Clinton almost a year and a half to get a working majority -- but other times it can be done almost instantly. Apparently enough commissioners' terms have expired that Kerry, if he makes decisions quickly, could have his own chair and a working majority on the FCC in place very quickly. That's a very lucky turn of events. And I know that these are issues that Kerry knows pretty well, so those "multiple life sentences" for Sinclair could come pretty quickly -- not because of revenge for the Swift Boat show, but simply by forcing them to abide by the existing public-interest regulations on ownership and cross-ownership.
Best ad of the year
via Mark Kleiman, I came across this amazing ad, about the most powerful anti-Bush ad I've ever seen. If you wanted to find a place to send some money, I think the group that made this ad, a veterans' group called Operation Truth, would be a good candidate.
A couple of related points: First, this is a good example of a point I've made often about campaign finance reform. This is an ad that does not say one word about the election, does not mention a candidate by name, a party, does not mention the administration or Congress. Nothing. It's entirely a statement of facts about the speakers experience in Iraq. And yet, it is a profoundly effective political ad. It's pretty hard to imagine watching it and then going out and voting for Bush. The big regulation in the McCain-Feingold law is the requirement to use hard money for any ad that mentions a candidate in the sixty days before a general election. But, as this ad shows, there are plenty of circumstances under which a pure issue ad can have an electoral impact. That probably becomes even more true as more and more effective ads work by indirection and allusion rather than the hit-you-on-the-head approach of old-fashioned advertising.
Should such ads be regulated? I can't imagine that they could be or should be. It would require some outside party to make a very subjective judgment that one ad is intended to influence the election while another was simply trying to make a point about the war. This ad is sponsored by a c(4) non-profit -- that is, contributions to it are not tax deductible but are not limited either, and the group can engage in a limited amount of electioneering if that's not it's primary purpose. This ad could almost have been run by a 501(c)3 non-profit (which is to say, tax-deductible contributions), although that would be legally daring. The 30-day/60-day rule is important and it can limit many of the extremely vicious soft-money attack ads that came up in the past few cycles. But there are still many other things that will influence an election outcome.
The other thing about this group is that they have former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura as an advisory board member, and also an ad featuring Ventura, which mostly criticizes the media. It seems Ventura has been very critical of the use of National Guard in Iraq and other aspects. Could he be used more? Wouldn't that have a huge impact in Minnesota, which I think is considered the state most at risk of going blue-to-red this year?
Bush as Gore, one more time
In the first debate, it was often remarked that Bush had hurt himself in much the same way that Gore had four years ago: his body language of smirks and sighs obscured what may have been a small advantage on traditional debating points.
Tonight, Andrew Sullivan posted a comment from a reader highlighting another Bush/Gore parallel. Like Gore in 2000, Bush seemed to careen wildly from one strategy/posture to another over his three debates. Bush 2000, on the other hand, had a pretty consistent voice, as did Kerry this year.
I would suggest a third way in which Bush turned into Gore: The big distinction in the Bush/Gore debates in 2000, to my ears, was that Gore was always talking about government programs. "Under my home energy-efficiency tax credit blah blah..." Bush's genius was that he always talked exclusively about principles and outcomes: "Everyone's taxes should be lower." It was a glaring distinction, and one that many liberals I've talked to about this over the last four years didn't even really notice, because they are so accustomed to thinking in terms of government programs. But people don't care whether they get LIHEAP or Medicare Part B -- they want a warm house and good health care.
Last night, though, it was Bush who was talking about programs -- albeit programs he doesn't understand and has never shown any interest in -- and Kerry who spoke very clearly in terms of principles. And then he drove it home with the great quote: "You don't measure it by a percentage increase. Mr. President, you measure it by whether you're getting the job done."
If Democrats can learn to speak this language, it will be hugely important to the future.
I haven't managed to do a quick, impressionistic debate reaction for any of the previous three, so here's a go at it:
Every so often, perhaps four times in the last four years, I am reminded in a big way that Bush does have some of the skills of a real president, perhaps even of a good one. There was his speech at National Cathedral after 9/11, there's the potential brilliance (had they not been transparent frauds) of "compassionate conservatism" and "a uniter not a divider" -- ideas that had they been taken seriously would have guaranteed his reelection and a reshaping of American politics. In my eyes, these moments are very infrequent and most of the time I just can't believe that this man, with the vocabulary of a fifteen-year-old, a complete inability to construct even a simple x-therefore-y argument, and a determined refusal to hear dissenting voices, could hold so much as a symbolic office.
But tonight, I thought, the real president kind of showed up. It's not a president I would vote for, but it was believable, like Reagan, unlike the pissed-off preppie of the first debate or the steroid-addled punk of the second.
Weighing all the three debates, I thought Bush was operating at about 40% of his potential in the first two, and at perhaps 70% tonight. (I've watched the video comparing his lucid discussion of education in the 1994 Texas governor's race with his McNaghten defense in the first two with Kerry, so I'll use 1994 as the Bush benchmark.)
If the Kerry of the previous debates had shown up, I think Bush's campaign might have been able to spin it as a turnaround. Unfortunately for Bush, Kerry's performance was at least 120% of his potential. I didn't mean to make this so mathematical, but my point is that Bush's improvement was profound. But Kerry's was even better. In the series of answers on nasty social issues, which would normally be a minefield for Kerry, he was unbelievably eloquent and presidential. I mean the questions on the role of religion in decision-making, the question on abortion, and the question on gay marriage. In the answers on the first two in particular, I could feel the depth of Kerry's Catholicism and the paradoxes it presented, which is a deeply humanizing element even to a non-religious viewer. I think this guy might have been reading Amy Sullivan, whose comments on the last two debates make her almost the equal of Garry Wills as someone who has helped me understand the place of religion in American politics.
Sure, there were points that Kerry missed. He barely challenged Bush's supposed accomplishments, No Child Left Behind and the Medicare prescription drug law. He didn't hit Bush hard enough on the vicious intolerance of a constitutional amendment on gay marriage. He should have rebutted Bush on the flu shortage answer, pointing out that vaccines are already protected from lawsuits, so tort reform is not the answer to the flu-shot shortage. And there
are perhaps a dozen other examples. But Kerry did not fall into the most obvious trap, which was to respond to Bush's outdated "Liberal Liberal Liberal" campaign with a mealy-mouthed attempt to prove that he was really the 24th-most-liberal Senator and it's all very complicated. Instead, failing to get the desired reaction, Bush seemed to give up that line of attack after the first ten minutes, when it didn't get the desired effect, and instead to portray himself as the non-ideologue.
Given Bush's performance, I was almost certain that he would be judged the winner based on low expections alone, just as he was against Gore. But the instant polls seem to show Kerry as the clear winner. As unrigorous as those polls are, they will shape the coverage. The stench of defeat is all over Bush.
As a Kerry supporter, I'm happier with this outcome than I would have been with a repeat of the first two debates. After those two, the perception was simply that Bush lost, that something went awry, and not quite enough attention was paid to Kerry's strengths. This, I thought, was very different. As someone who absolutely had not recognized Kerry's strengths until recently (despite being in the same room with him a half-dozen times, and hundreds more if you count sitting on the staff bench in the U.S. Senate as being in the same room), I've concluded that this is a person who grows on you slowly, whereas Bush is one who shrinks. In the first debates, Kerry made Bush shrink; in the third, Kerry grew, to a level way above the line of plausible-as-president, and thus Bush's quite impressive recovery was irrelevant.