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How to Win Over A Nation Of Partisans

5 minute read
Joe Klein

A CNN/GALLUP poll last week found that a majority of the American people–53%–believe that George W. Bush has misled the public for political reasons. The same poll found that 57% believe that John Kerry has changed his mind on issues for political reasons. A separate CNN/Gallup poll showed that Richard Clarke’s testimony before the 9/11 commission had immediately become a partisan football (81% of Bush voters didn’t believe Clarke; 80% of Kerry voters did). This is pretty depressing.

The electorate seems both cynical and hyperpartisan. The partisanship may be a reflexive reaction to a campaign that has got too hot too soon. The cynicism may be a rational reaction to the Bush Administration’s hyperbolic arguments for war in Iraq and to Kerry’s distressing tendency to surround issues rather than take positions on them. In neither case is it very healthy, and the general level of disgust and frustration seems likely to get worse. We may have reached the point at which a civil political conversation is no longer possible in this country.

Both Bush and Kerry face a basic political decision: whether to speak to the nation or preach to the choir. The urge to preach may be overwhelming. The number of undecided voters is minuscule, about 5% in most polls. Activists in both parties–Karl Rove and Howard Dean, for example–argue that the surest path to victory is to stoke the base, keep the partisans engaged and angry, and deal with those wimpy undecideds by tearing down the opposition with negative TV ads.

The Republican strategy this year appears to be extreme hardball. Yes, there have been efforts to reach out to constituencies like suburban women (through the Bush education initiative), senior citizens (the Medicare prescription-drug bribe) and Latinos (immigration reform). But the dominant message coming from the White House is, We’re right, we don’t make mistakes, and anyone who disagrees better watch out. The essential Bush foreign, fiscal and social policies represent nothing less than a new political philosophy: Utopian conservatism, a messianic faith in the power of democracy to transform the Middle East and the power of tax cuts to produce prosperity. This is a radical departure from the mainstream traditions of American diplomacy and fiscal responsibility and should be grounds for a serious debate. But the Administration reacts to almost every challenge–from the Niger uranium flap to Clarke’s testimony–as if it were a mortal threat, demonizing its opponents, stonewalling, raising the stakes. After a perfunctory first week of positive ads, the Bush campaign has unleashed a withering negative advertising blitz against Kerry.

Kerry has to decide how to respond to that. The temptation is to fight fire with fire. If your opponent says something scurrilous, scurril back immediately. Kerry leads a party half-crazed with anger at the Bush Administration and hungry for red meat. But the flaws in the political Atkins diet are already manifest in the television ads aired by liberal advocacy groups like MoveOn.org and the Media Fund. They paint America in shades of black and blacker. Jobs are leaving, the economy is in the tank, health care is evaporating, and Social Security and Medicare are threatened by Snidely Whiplash Republicans. The Media Fund launched a morally atrocious ad last week questioning the additional $87 billion that Bush is spending in Iraq: “Shouldn’t America be his top priority?” I mean, even for those who opposed the war, what’s the alternative to staying the course now? Abandon Iraq to chaos and terrorism? (Kerry’s contradictory votes in favor of the war and against the $87 billion are his most difficult to defend.)

There are two other possible paths for Kerry: blandness and boldness. Some Democrats argue that 90% of their nominee’s job this year is to just show up; the election is a referendum on Bush, and all Kerry has to do is keep a solid, plausible, inoffensive profile. Promise internationalism abroad and Clintonian prosperity at home. Hug some trees. Propose health care. It’s a strategy that might work if the public hates the President as much as Democrats do. But the public doesn’t. In fact, most people like Bush the man, even if they have reservations about Bush the pol.

And boldness? My guess is that policy boldness won’t work. There isn’t the money to spend, and Bush has been bold to a fault overseas. The most daring promise Kerry can make involves a matter of style, not substance: peace in our time–in Washington. An end to the berserk partisanship that has overtaken the nation, a return to creative moderation. But a mere promise to be nice isn’t enough: Bush promised that in 2000. No, Kerry has to go further. The ideal step would be to make John McCain his choice for Vice President and announce a government of national reconciliation composed of moderate Democrats and Republicans. This is, of course, a fantasy. McCain has already (tepidly) endorsed Bush. But a radical move to the middle, a campaign that looks and sounds different from the usual partisan claptrap–one that features more ideas like Kerry’s proposed reduction in the corporate tax in return for corporate-loophole closing–may be John Kerry’s only chance to transcend the swamp gas that is threatening to engulf this long, long political year.

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