Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Can the Democrats score a touchdown with the Rummy political football?

Life can be refreshingly unpredictable. From the “who woulda thunk it” file:

(a) The Phillies, of all people, are competing hard for a playoff berth...

(b) Bob Dylan, of all people, becomes a cutting-edge pitchman for I-Tunes...

(c) the Democrats, of all people, take the offensive on the national security issue...

(d) Vanity Fair magazine shills for the celebrity culture by putting Tom Cruise and “baby Suri” on the cover of its new issue.

Just kidding about (d); that was totally predictable. But (c) is a bit of a stunner, given the Democrats’ behavior in recent election seasons, when they appeared to be either cowering at Karl Rove’s orchestration of the security issue (2002), or simply fumbling along, thanks to John Kerry’s inability to articulate concisely and consistently (2004).

Democrats are now signaling, however, that they will borrow a fabled Rove tactic: targeting the opposition’s strength and trying to convert it into a weakness. In this case, it means trying to persuade voters that the GOP, traditionally seen as the strong security party, has actually been weakening America in the war on terrorism. (The Democrats might actually have the wind at their back this time. The Bush White House probably won’t be pleased by this new finding, in a Fox News poll released today: When people were asked whether America would have been better or worse off if Al Gore had been president on 9/11, 34 percent said better and 33 percent said worse; among swing-voting independents, 37 percent said better and 27 percent said worse.)

One key facet of the Democratic plan is to target Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whose failures of execution in Iraq have been copiously documented in two widely respected books -- Fiasco and Cobra II -- and who has famously brushed off criticisms by saying things like “stuff happens.”

I wonder whether the Democrats’ targeting of Rumsfeld will prove to be politically effective (for reasons explained down below), but first let’s look at the reasons why Democrats are confident. Rumsfeld is potentially a good “wedge” issue during this congressional campaign season; in other words, condemning him is a tactic that unites the Democrats and divides the Republicans.

Democrats may not all agree on whether the Iraq war was originally worth fighting, or whether a withdrawal timeline is smart or stupid. But they generally agree that the Pentagon has erred repeatedly in its execution of the war (too few troops to stabilize the postwar country, among many examples); therefore, they can see no downside in seeking a congressional “no confidence” vote on Rumsfeld, because it gives them the opportunity to bang away at their ongoing “incompetence” theme.

And the Rumsfeld issue potentially puts Republicans on the spot, forcing them to choose between sticking up for the war steward who still has President Bush’s full support, or acting in opposition to Rumsfeld and thereby demonstrating a lack of loyalty to Bush. Indeed, a number of Republicans in tough re-election races, have already either called for Rumsfeld’s resignation or strongly assailed him.

But maybe Democrats are overestimating Rumsfeld’s effectiveness as a political tool. Charles Schumer, the New York lawmaker who heads the party’s Senate campaign committee, may have unwittingly highlighted the problem, with this remark in this morning’s New York Times: “Both hawks and doves can call for Rumsfeld to step down and still be consistent with their position. It applies to both parties.”

Well, if war hawks who see Iraq as a glorious mission can dump on Rumsfeld, if antiwar pols who see Iraq as a disastrous distraction can also dump on Rumsfeld, and if indeed this “applies to both parties,” then where’s the partisan traction for the Democrats?

The Democrats might score PR points if some vulnerable Republicans choose to distance themselves from Bush by dumping on Rumsfeld. But if those GOP incumbents, touting their independence from the Bush team, wind up ekeing out victories in their states and districts; and if GOP challengers (such as New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr.) assail Rumsfeld, show their independence, and thus successfully woo swing voters....well, I doubt the Democrats have gamed it out that far. But that scenario would certainly demonstrate the law of unintended consequences.

On the other hand, some Republican strategists remain seriously concerned about their prospects in November. They fear that the party's control of Congress is imperiled simply because swing voters equate the GOP with the status quo -- at a time when the status quo is not popular. Here's GOP pollster David Hill, writing today:

"(T)he vast majority of independents, even if they don’t hate Bush, are dissatisfied with the direction of the country....If nothing else changes, this portends a scenario in which Republicans lose control of Congress this November. If two of every three voters go into their polling places and cast their votes for change, the Democrats will win if the Republicans are stand-patters. There are Republican strategists who disagree, of course. They say that by moving security issues up the issue agenda we will scare swing voters away from voting for the squishy Democrats that might not protect us from terror. I’m less certain about that conclusion than I am about the desire for change. I say the mood for something different will trump even national security."


On a related terrorism front, it was noteworthy that, in a speech yesterday, President Bush mentioned Osama bin Laden by name 17 times in 44 minutes.

But here was Bush on March 13, 2002: “I don't know where bin Laden is. I have no idea and really don't care. It's not that important. It's not our priority....I truly am not that concerned about him....We shoved him out more and more on the margins. He has no place to train his al Qaeda killers anymore."

So: If bin Laden was “on the margins” four years ago, yet now suddenly he warrants 17 mentions in 44 minutes, doesn’t that suggest he has become a greater threat, and that our security has become more imperiled, on Bush’s watch?