Why Bush Won
OK, it sucks. The party that created this whole mess for us got rewarded with four more years. How do you single-handedly sink us into a quagmire in Iraq that’s killed over 1,100 US soldiers; turn a budget surplus into a record deficit; and preside over the first net loss of jobs in over 70 years – and get re-elected? It’s not supposed to work this way! Does 2 + 2 equal 13.61471 instead of 4? How did this happen?
Like it or not, there are reasons that the Democrats blew this. A lesson that should have been learned during the 2002 Congressional elections wasn’t learned. It was spelled out on a 500-foot billboard with blazing neon letters, and the Democratic strategists missed it. During the summer and fall of 2002, George W. Bush stuck his neck out. He traveled all over the country, campaigning and drumming up hysteria about the Iraqi menace. He didn’t care what people thought (at least that was the implied message); he had something urgent to tell the American people. He didn’t play good cop/bad cop; he was the bad cop, and he didn’t care. He took a huge gamble and it paid off: Republicans took back the Senate and strengthened their hold on the House.
A dispute over the Homeland Security Department – Democrats wanted the thousands of employees of this new department to get the standard job protections and benefits that other government employees get – got spun into an urgent national security issue, with Democrats being portrayed as jeopardizing national security in order to coddle labor unions. It didn’t matter that Congressional Democrats originated the idea of creating a Homeland Security department and the idea was dismissed by Republicans as yet another big government scheme by Democrats. That story got buried on page 37. When Republicans finally agreed to the idea of creating a Homeland Security department, they grabbed the reins and pretended it was their own idea. This ploy worked because Republican strategists and spinmeisters have mastered the tactic of defining the issues and painting their opponents into a corner.
How did the Democrats respond during the 2002 campaign regarding Iraq and national security? By articulately stating their case – that Iraq was a phony issue and that corporate scandals and the sagging economy should be a higher priority? No. The Democrats tried to win public favor by being Bush Lite. Their response seemed to always translate into either “me too” or “I don’t think so, uh, let’s see, maybe if …”
Let’s bring in some Hollywood archetypes. Who does John Q. Public like better – a swaggering Marlon Brando or a faceless, mild-mannered department store clerk? The rebel who knows what he wants and is gonna go ahead and do what he wants no matter what, or the meek, cautious naysayers and handwringers? The Democratic strategy of “maybe he won’t hit me if I cower and grovel” clearly backfired.
The antidote to this strategy came in the form of Howard Dean, who had a pulse, a spine, spoke bluntly, and almost captured the Democratic nomination. Perhaps Dean would have been demolished by the Republican Machine if he’d gotten the nomination; we’ll never know. But for that brief moment, the Democratic frontrunner was saying what needed to be said, calling Bush the names he needed to be called, and wasn’t wringing his hands and thinking “gee, I want to sit at the popular table. What do I have to say? Whose ass do I have to kiss?”
Even though Dean didn’t get the nomination, the ultimate primary winner should have realized that the aggressive, blunt, define-the-issues and define-your-opponent approach is what works in American politics. You don’t have to like it, but this is the reality; this is how it works. And when the primaries were over and the winner declared, the Democratic strategy went right back to striving for the popular table, and calculating whose ass to kiss and how to be everything to everybody and how to offend the smallest number of people. And here we are……