To succeed in November, President Bush must both mobilize his base and engage nontraditional voters by putting a big, bold idea on the table. That is what Ronald Reagan did in 1980 with income tax cuts, and it is what Republicans did in 1994 with the Contract With America, when we won a majority in the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. Both were historic victories won by campaigning on big, bold ideas that attracted millions of new voters to the process.
It’s time for the next wave of bold ideas. There is a big idea out there that will energize the base and bring new voters to the polls in November: reforming Social Security by creating personal retirement accounts, which would allow workers to invest a large portion of their Social Security tax dollars into individual accounts that they own and control. This idea is popular because it frees future generations from relying on the whim of congressional promises for their retirement, and it solves the looming Social Security unfunded liability crisis. It’s also a way to let Americans at all income levels begin to build real wealth — and personal accounts are especially popular with younger voters.
President Bush has shown support for this big idea, which could be the central plank of his new “ownership society” vision. Alternatively, John Kerry has no answer to the promise of personal retirement accounts, and he has no plan to save the crumbling Social Security system.
Social Security reform was a key differentiating issue for Republicans in the successful Senate races in 2002 in Colorado, North Carolina and New Hampshire, and I think the issue is a winner for Bush and the Republican Party this November.
As a New Yorker, I’ve seen plenty of heroics at Madison Square Garden — from Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Andy Bathgate and Rod Gilbert, all Big Apple sports heroes. Now, President George W. Bush heads to the Garden needing one of those comebacks that New York’s basketball and hockey teams have rarely accomplished over the past two decades.
The president trails Sen. John Kerry narrowly both in national polls and in key states, but his bigger problem is that a majority of Americans say that the country is headed off on the “wrong track,” not in the “right direction.” Incumbents rarely benefit from a mood favoring change.
So what does President Bush do, assuming that he doesn’t bench himself or Vice President Dick Cheney and call Sen. John McCain in as a substitute? (He won’t.) Ideally, Bush needs to change the public’s perception of the economy and the war in Iraq. But talking about those two issues in New York isn’t likely to accomplish much. Only external events can do that, and they are not in the president’s control.
I expect Republicans to do three things at their convention. First, they will make the case for Bush’s performance on domestic issues, arguing that he accomplished a great deal (in education and prescription drugs) and fought for other things, such as medical malpractice reform, conservative judges and drilling in the Arctic, that Democrats killed.
Second, they will try to make the race for the White House a referendum on the president’s handling of the war on terror. Bush’s numbers in that area have slipped over the past few months, but his handling of terrorism remains his greatest strength.
And third, Bush’s strategists believe that the president’s prospects rest on their ability to make Kerry an unacceptable alternative to swing voters and late deciders. That means that they must continue to raise questions in New York about the Massachusetts senator’s character, judgment, consistency and values — about his record in the Senate, his often vague comments about values and about Iraq, and his ability to handle the war on terror.
Paul M. Weyrich, chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation
Because there are so few undecided voters, President Bush needs to get every vote in his coalition out on Election Day. To accomplish that, he should use alternative media to the greatest extent possible. Richard Viguerie [chairman of American Target Advertising, a direct mail company] has suggested that whichever candidate manages to motivate his base to the greater extent will win the election. I believe that is right.
The Kerry vote is highly motivated. They just want to dump Bush. But Bush should lay out his vision for a second term (and I am assuming that his proposals will excite voters) and then discuss this in detail with every talk show — especially Christian radio and TV shows — every host on the Fox News Channel, all of the major syndicated talk shows plus some regional hosts who have good ratings, editorial boards of friendly publications, and so on. Enthusiasm for Bush should be at a fever pitch by Election Day.
Bush has built an amazing voter ID and turnout operation with an unprecedented number of volunteers. Unfortunately, while the volunteers have been given minimal training, they have not had an opportunity to show what they can do. In those states with late primaries, the Bush-Cheney ticket should exercise their volunteers to see what they produce. They may be just supporting a referendum rather than a candidate, but they need to be tested to see if course corrections are necessary. For those states with no late elections, the volunteers should be given an assignment, perhaps a petition of some sort. They absolutely need to be tested. Otherwise the campaign will find out too late who did not produce.
In the debates, as former Gov. Bill Weld, R-Mass., has pointed out, John Kerry is the master of changing the subject. President Bush needs to practice keeping Kerry’s feet to the fire. The debates should be about Kerry’s record in the U.S. Senate for two decades. He cannot justify some of the votes he cast. Moreover, while the president should not get into questions of Kerry’s service in Vietnam, he should raise the issue of Kerry’s testimony when he returned from Vietnam, which was an insult to the entire military.
Meanwhile, the more the president focuses on the nation’s business, the more it will remind voters who is the president and who is not.
Will he follow this advice? I don’t know. George W. Bush is really an independent fellow. He only takes advice that he has asked for.
Ed Kilgore, policy director of the Democratic Leadership Council
The dynamics of this presidential contest are not favorable to George W. Bush. Undecided voters rarely break toward well-known incumbents at a time of relative unhappiness with the direction of the country. The president’s original swing-voter strategy, from No Child Left Behind to the prescription-drug benefit, is in ruins. And the idea that Republicans are going to outgun Democrats in turning out their voters is almost certainly a false hope.
Mr. Bush needs to do something different to change the race and win. Here are three options:
1. Admit a few mistakes. The perception of the president as a man of simple values and total self-confidence has generally been a political asset. But when things go wrong — for example, in the economy and in Iraq — this same quality begins to look suspiciously like pigheadedness, or even cluelessness. Bush needs to understand that showing he can admit mistakes and adjust his policies to reflect real-life circumstances would strengthen, not weaken, his regular-guy credentials.
2. Triangulate. The president’s lukewarm approval ratings are a lot better than those of the Republican-controlled Congress. And at a time when most undecided voters think the country’s on the “wrong track,” the GOP’s undivided control of Washington is not a good thing for Bush. At a minimum, he should make it clear he will rein in the free-spending habits of his friends in Congress, which would simultaneously reassure conservatives upset about runaway spending and swing voters upset about budget deficits.
3. Go positive. Bush-Cheney ’04 is playing a dangerous game by going so negative, so often, against John Kerry, forgetting that Bush’s promise to “change the tone in Washington” and serve as a “uniter, not a divider,” was very important to his 2000 victory. Undecided voters hate the negative stuff, which is why Kerry hasn’t gone there. Maybe the idea is to drag the race into the muck and depress overall turnout. If not, Bush needs to lift his message and let his critics look like the mad dogs.
Will the incumbent do any of these three things? Probably not. And that’s why this race remains John Kerry’s to lose.
William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard magazine
Bush can win the election if he runs a competent campaign in which he points out the following truths:
He is a tax cutter; Kerry is a tax hiker.
He will fight to preserve traditional marriage; Kerry won’t.
He is fighting a tough-minded war on terror, taking the fight to the enemy; Kerry would fight a sensitive war on terror, allowing them to take the fight to us.
And then Bush needs simply to sit back and observe as others bring to light the character and import of Kerry’s single most famous public statement: His April 22, 1971, testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the alleged war crimes committed daily by Americans in Vietnam.
Danielle Pletka, vice president of foreign and defense policy studies, American Enterprise Institute
I don’t know what Bush will do, but I think I know what he has to do. Next week at the convention, and in the remaining two months before the election, the president has to persuade the American people that he is the better person to confront the terrorist, weapons proliferation, and rogue state challenges that exist.
If we want a defensive candidate, then, as Chris Hitchens so viciously wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “John Kerry would make a perfectly decent peacetime president.” However, as the national conversation continues about how we face up to existing threats, one of the things that has become very clear is that a failure of imagination is fatal.
There aren’t enormous distinctions between the two parties. Yes, one candidate is more likely to raise taxes, or less likely to embrace the United Nations, but these are the lines of every single election. The major difference is that Bush’s message is “I’m taking the battle to the enemy’s territory.” And John Kerry’s message is “If you hit us, we’ll hit you back hard.”
The Kerry campaign has made a great deal of support for first responders and of massive retaliation in the event of an attack. Bush has made very clear that his No. 1 goal is not to have to retaliate, not to need vengeance, not to be able to clean up better, but to do his utmost to preempt the attack. If he can persuade Americans that his is the right way to go, then he is the candidate that they are going to choose.
Charlie Cook, editor of the Cook Political Report; political analyst for the National Journal
The challenge for the Bush campaign is to expand its own base, mobilizing more conservative and Republican voters far more than they have ever been energized before, and turning Kerry into a patently unacceptable alternative. But the dangers of such a strategy are obvious. The more a candidate panders to the party base, the more likely they are to antagonize moderate, independent swing voters. When an incumbent president steps out of the Rose Garden, so to speak, and into the gutter, he loses much of the aura and protection that come with the job. Yet President Bush may have no other alternative.
As Republicans gather in New York, Bush has his work cut out for him. While many observers see national polls that have shown the race roughly tied since early April, it does not mean that the two have equal chances of winning.
Historically, we know that well-known, well-defined incumbents rarely win over many undecided voters on Election Day. With this widely accepted dynamic in mind, this year’s pool of undecided voters must look especially daunting to Republican strategists. According to five Associated Press/Ipsos Public Affairs national polls conducted between April and early August, 41 percent of the 3,719 registered voters said that the country was headed in the right direction, to 56 percent who thought the country was on the wrong track. Among the 327 registered voters who were undecided in the presidential race, only 19 percent thought the country was headed in the right direction, while 74 percent said off on the wrong track.
While the broader pool of registered voters was evenly split on presidential approval, only 25 percent of the undecided voters approved of his performance — and 68 percent disapproved. On the pivotal question of handling the economy among all registered voters, 46 percent approved of Bush’s performance, while 52 percent disapproved. But again, looking at the undecided pool of voters, only 24 percent approved, while 69 percent disapproved.
Not surprisingly, then, Democrats recently had an 18-point advantage over Republicans among the undecideds. Forty-three percent of the undecided voters consider themselves Democrats, 25 percent Republicans and the remaining 32 percent independent. So the pattern of undecided voters usually breaking overwhelmingly in favor of challengers over well-known, well-defined incumbents looks very likely to be replicated this year.
At this stage it seems unlikely that a couple months of good economic numbers, a diminished number of U.S. casualties in Iraq that might remove the war from the nation’s news headlines, and three strong debate performances would change the structure of a race that in no way resembles what Bush campaign strategists might have anticipated a year ago. Barring a major external event, a major terrorist attack, a well-timed capture of Osama bin Laden, or some other major international development that unifies the country, President Bush will need to be perhaps 3 percentage points ahead going into Election Day, as he is highly unlikely to win over more than, say, a quarter of the undecided vote.