Thursday, August 26, 2004

Summoning Cassandra

A prediction: George W. Bush will win the 2004 presidential election. It won't be a landslide, but it won't be as close as 2000's toss-up between Bush and Gore.

The reason: Republicans have been moving towards the center much more deftly than their Democratic counterparts. Simply put, the Democrats are just getting outplayed.

Consider the recent flap over the Bush-connected Swift Boat Veterans for Truth smear campaign against Kerry. Almost everyone agrees that these ads were personally nasty, probably misleading, and a prime example of the continued potency of soft money post-McCain-Feingold. Bush himself, along with his administration, have finally had to distance themselves from the ads, albeit indirectly, by railing against third-party political advertisements by "shadowy groups."

But consider the moves: Kerry wants to move away from his Massachusetts liberal image and capture some middle ground. He -- and the press, the party, everyone -- leans on his experience in Vietnam to do it. They bracket his anti-war activism, at least for mainstream audiences.

Conservative groups, ninja-like, use Kerry's military momentum against him. He wants to run as a Vietnam hero? Fine. They get some friendly people to kick up enough dirt to make things a little less clear-cut. (This is easy enough: Was anyone a clear-cut hero in Vietnam?) The Republican base, already ready to believe that Kerry was a coward, now has a mantra: Unfit For Command. Late-to-the-game centrist and independent voters, who hadn't known much about Kerry besides that he was a war hero, now aren't even sure about that.

Kerry's poll numbers drop. Now he has to humiliate himself and essentially admit that he's bleeding by publicly asking Bush to renounce the ads. After waiting for the ads to finish their course, Bush does denounce them, but only through denouncing all third-party ads. Not only doesn't he need to really give in, but he gets to put a sunny, centrist face on even this concession: mugging with John McCain and appearing to take his stance as a matter of principle.

It's not going to stop. Rudy Giuliani, Mike Bloomberg, George Pataki, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb's good-looking Latino son -- they're all going to be trotted out on New York's stage less than two months before the election. The protests by left-wing groups, always solipsistic, are likely to be counterproductive: they remind mainstream voters why they dislike and distrust the left in the first place. It's 1968 all over again.

I can see the GOP getting a big bounce from this convention, especially since Kerry hasn't been able to get any kind of traction. Unless voter turnout for Kerry goes through the roof, liberals could be weeping this November. And the kind of attacks Kerry's had to fend off aren't really designed to get voters to vote against Kerry -- they're designed to make them stay home.

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