WSJ NAILS WHAT DEMS ARE UP TO
With Bush Vulnerable in Poll,
Party Hammers on Iraq,
Lost Manufacturing Jobs
By JACOB M. SCHLESINGER and JEANNE CUMMINGS
Staff Reporters of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
WASHINGTON -- President Bush has formidable advantages for his 2004 re-election campaign. Incumbents rarely lose when the economy is turning sharply up. Americans tend to rally around presidents during wartime. The president expects a record $200 million war chest to battle his Democratic rival.
Now the Democrats' battle plan is starting to take shape, with five main objectives. Neutralize Mr. Bush's national-security edge by fanning doubts about his Iraq policy. Craft economic attacks that can work even if the economy keeps improving. Dent the president's reputation for honesty and competence. Mobilize Democratic partisans in 17 states that Mr. Bush barely won or lost in 2000. And maneuver around the new campaign-finance law by redirecting now-banned big donations away from the Democratic Party to a new set of groups that will coordinate attacks on Mr. Bush.
The president clearly has some vulnerabilities. In a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll1, 40% of Americans say they'd "probably" vote for the Democratic candidate in November 2004 vs. 43% who'd back Mr. Bush -- a statistical dead heat. His approval rating hovers at a tepid 51%, misgivings over the Iraq conflict are growing, and even favorable assessments of his personal qualities have slipped. Those are only slightly better than his weakest numbers yet. (See related article2.)
The Democrats will first have to go through a bruising primary contest with eight rivals before a nominee emerges, probably in March. And then Republicans will begin in earnest to take the candidate apart. That's why Democrats and loyalists aren't waiting for a leader this time around to implement their plan.
Here's a look at how the Democrats are mounting their attack:
The Iraq War
On Capitol Hill, Democrats have worked to win the strategic political war even while losing legislative battles. They prolonged debate over Mr. Bush's request for $87 billion in new war-related spending to play on Americans' sense of sticker shock at the huge expenditure.
The administration "wanted to do it in one week, but it took more than four," says Illinois Democratic Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a former Clinton White House political aide who was a leading critic of the package. The lengthy deliberations, he reasons, allowed the figure to "settle in America's consciousness" and fan discontent over administration mistakes.
And that discontent, on the campaign trail, has become a staple of candidate ads and stump speeches. "Eighty-seven billion dollars is a lot of money for Iraq -- too much, in fact," says Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, in his first TV ads -- though he ended up voting for the funds.
Daily barbs from retired Gen. Wesley Clark lend weight to Democrats' foreign-policy critique, whatever happens to his own bid. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry ties the cost of rebuilding Iraq to the broader offensive against Mr. Bush's economic policies, introducing legislation to pay for Iraq's reconstruction by repealing Mr. Bush's tax cuts on families making more than $311,950 a year.
While Mr. Bush savors signs of robust growth and a stronger job market, Democratic strategists are busily honing "the glass is half-empty" arguments.
"The control of the definition of the jobs issue is going to matter over the next year," said Kerry adviser Bob Shrum in a recent conference call with other party strategists. While Mr. Bush touts monthly employment gains, Democrats focus on the net loss in payroll jobs -- a shortfall that almost certainly won't be made up by next November.
Democrats are focusing on the troubled manufacturing sector rather than the broader labor market. And they're highlighting job losses in states that represent important electoral targets. When national party chairman Terry McAuliffe traveled to Cleveland recently, he appeared at a news conference with the owner of an African-American family-run landscaping firm that had laid off 26 of its 30 employees.
Party leaders in Washington keep a state-by-state compendium of unflattering economic statistics to embarrass Mr. Bush on his own travels. When Mr. Bush used an appearance at a Columbus, Ohio, aluminum maker to bask in the recent growth pickup, the Center for American Progress, a new pro-Democratic think tank, released a report noting that "Columbus has lost 16,000 jobs since President Bush took office -- almost 2% of the city's entire work force."
The President's Character
Among the trickiest challenges for Democrats is undermining Mr. Bush's personal popularity. Though Democratic partisans loathe him, other Americans don't, and changing their attitudes won't be easy. "People love Laura Bush, and they really think the president is a moral man," pollster Celinda Lake cautioned a recent gathering of Democrats from Midwestern states, offering polls showing that 67% approve of Mr. Bush personally. "We have to be careful about how we talk about him. We can't just call him a liar, even though that's what we think."
So Democrats are trying to walk close to that line without crossing it. Mr. Kerry blasts e-mails to supporters detailing the "Daily Distortions from the Commander in Chief." Mr. Lieberman has launched a "bushintegritywatch.com3" Web site, showing an image of the president raising his right hand swearing to "uphold the honor and integrity of the office" -- while crossing the fingers on his left hand behind his back.
The Democratic National Committee recently ran a television ad in Pennsylvania -- a state the Bush campaign is focusing on in next year's election -- aimed at stoking the dying embers of public anger about the leak of a Central Intelligence Agency operative's name. "Scandals in the Bush White House," a man's voice intones over a blurry black-and-white photo of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Dusting off a variant of the 2000 campaign charge that Mr. Bush isn't bright, former Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg recently sent candidates and congressional leaders a memo proposing a "core message" that begins: "President Bush is overwhelmed by the problems facing the country." MoveOn.org4, a liberal activist group, has created an online contest for backers to create the most effective anti-Bush message, to be judged by liberal writer Michael Moore, Democratic campaign veteran Donna Brazile, and actors Jack Black and Janeane Garofalo, among others.
Get Out the Vote
With America increasingly polarized into opposing political camps, Democratic strategists have joined Bush advisers in concluding that the key to 2004 success is mobilizing partisans more than persuading a diminishing pool of independents. The Republican and Democratic camps each claim 45% of the electorate; just 10% of Americans say they're up for grabs, according to some polls. That's a shift from the more fluid 40-40-20 split of earlier years.
So Democrats are investing more heavily than ever in efforts to maximize Democratic turnout. Their model is the AFL-CIO voter drive of the 1990s, concocted after Republicans took control of Congress in 1994. By ramping up direct political communication with their members, union leaders swelled the proportion of the electorate from union households to 26% in 2000 from 19% in 1992.
Democrats see the opportunity for similar gains among other core constituencies such as African-Americans, Hispanics and working women. At a rally Wednesday, where two large labor unions announced they were endorsing him, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean responded to those who worry his red-meat partisan message can't win in the general election. "We're going to have three to four million people that didn't vote the last time, or voted for third parties," he said.
Organizers from pro-Democratic activist groups called America Coming Together and Partnership for America's Families are already knocking on doors in St. Louis, Philadelphia and Cleveland to boost black registration for next year. In Cleveland, activists have a computerized street map with red dots showing houses to be approached. By boosting African-American turnout to 11% of the total state vote from 9% in 2000, they argue, the Democratic ticket can erase more than half the 165,000-vote edge by which Mr. Bush captured Ohio's 21 electoral votes three years ago.
The effort is aided by a new, comprehensive national Democratic database, which has been blended with various political and commercial lists to provide as detailed a picture as possible of the voter lifestyles and ideological leanings. Some strategists think even data such as pet ownership could be a clue to environmental attitudes.
Rather than leafleting all voters with information about Medicare, Democrats can now target those pitches to elderly voters, while talking education to families with small children, long-term care coverage to a couple caring for elderly parents and overtime to somebody who works more than 40 hours a week. The database also can determine whether a given voter tends to watch TV, read magazines or surf the Internet, to figure out how best to deliver the message.
President Bush's antagonists know that none of their efforts will ultimately matter if they cannot vie financially with the incumbent. And the Democrats' disadvantage in money was exacerbated by the recent McCain-Feingold law banning unlimited donations to political parties, or "soft money."
While banning soft money was Democratic Party doctrine for years, professional operatives considered it political suicide. Republicans, with wealthier donors and superior direct-mail prowess, long have had a decided advantage over Democrats in collecting "hard money" -- donations that are limited in size and can be used to directly advocate for or against a candidate. Soft money from wealthy supporters, labor unions and access-seeking corporations kept the Democrats competitive in recent years.
The Republicans' hard-money advantage in 2004 likely will be huge. So far, they have raised $116 million, compared with the Democrats' $44 million. Moreover, President Bush appears on his way to raising a record-smashing $200 million or more for his primary campaign. That could dwarf anything his Democratic opponent will have left after securing the nomination, leaving the challenger badly outgunned for several months of the spring and summer, until the Treasury releases money for the publicly financed general-election campaign.
Worried about the void, liberal operatives have plotted ways around the campaign-finance law that their party's elected officials pressed Republicans into enacting. They have set up a sprawling alliance of nonprofit groups to recapture some of the approximately $250 million in soft-money donations that the reform law now prevents the party from accepting.
They aim to use that money to finance get-out-the-vote efforts and ads slamming Mr. Bush and Republicans. By law, most of the nonprofit groups can accept unlimited donations and participate in the political process, as long as they disclose donations and don't explicitly advocate any federal candidate's election or defeat -- or coordinate with candidates or political parties. So most groups will focus on "educating" voters about what they consider Mr. Bush's shortcomings -- without touting any particular candidate in the process.
The effort includes big bucks from some of the biggest names in the pro-Democratic galaxy. It was started by labor leaders, mulling how to spend the roughly $30 million in soft money they gave to Democrats in 2000 but now can't under the reform law. The Service Employees International Union donated a portion of its $4 million in previous soft-money checks to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's new group, which aims to raise $2 million to register 500,000 new Hispanic voters. George Soros, a 74-year-old billionaire with a penchant for liberal candidates and causes, has kicked in $10 million for a voter-mobilization project, and another $5 million to MoveOn's ads.
At the same time, the leading Democratic candidate, Mr. Dean, is aiming to turn Mr. Bush's fund-raising strength into a liability. Campaign manager Joe Trippi travels with a CD-ROM showing how fund raising could become a central element of the Democrats' November 2004 message. It includes a bar graph showing that more than 70% of Mr. Bush's campaign donors gave $2,000, while just 10% of Mr. Dean's donors have given that much. Indeed, more than 50% of Mr. Dean's donors have given $200 or less, while just 10% of Mr. Bush's backers have donated such small amounts. Mr. Trippi uses the bar graphs to drive home the argument that Mr. Bush's campaign is financed by well-heeled special interests, not average Americans.