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Do Issues Matter?

Tuesday, September 14, 2004
Opinion polls show that Bush and Kerry are close, with Bush enjoying a slight lead. But these same polls indicate that people are dissatisfied with the direction of the country, unhappy with the economy, think Iraq is a mess, and agree with Democrats by healthy margins on almost every issue. Given these conditions, we would expect Kerry to enjoy a healthy lead. Reporters should be writing premature obitiuaries for the other guy, not ours.

So what gives? There are a lot of explanations. The polls could be wrong, of course, or we could just be seeing the tail end of the Bush convention bounce. That's quite possible. Another hypothesis is that the voters will not embrace Kerry as an alternative until they see him on the same stage as the President- much the same way that Kennedy in 1960, Reagan in 1980, Clinton in 1992, and Bush in 2000 benefitted from credible debate performances against formidable and experienced opponents. We could also be dealing with a hostile and/or easily manipulated media. Our little experiment is not quite done, but so far the AWOL and Kelly accusations are mere whispers on the campaign.

Yet another possibility is that there is one issue, namely national defense, where the Republicans have a clear advantage. And we just happen to be in an election where that is the most important issue (see Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias. From this perspective, the Clinton Presidency was kind of a fluke, coming as it did in between the Cold War and the War on Terror. There is something to this argument, but I think there is something very disturbing about it. If people are accepting the manifest disaster that is the Bush foreign policy, then they are either being duped, are misinformed, or are imperialists. I don't think voters really agree with the Bush foreign policy- I just think that Bush is still benefiting from the rally-around-the-flag effect and his own, deliberately fostered, climate of fear.

Michael Tomasky has another, far more radical theory: issues don't matter. The Republicans are far better organized and ruthless, to their credit, but they also realize that they can't win with issues. So they don't- they win with personality. So they smear their opponents and misrepresent their own candidate, whatever it takes. Issues are hard see, so they are easy to fuzz. It is also easy to mischaracterize and oversimplify complicted policy proposals to your advantage and your opponent's detriment. The lesson for Democrats is, yes, be more disciplined, but more importantly, stop thinking elections are won on the issues. Because if they were, we would still be the majority party.

There is a certain amount of truth to this, and as a piece of analysis Tomasky's argument is quite seductive. Not least of all because we would then be free to smear the other candidates in kind, which would be therapeutic if nothing else.

As fun as it would be, playing the character was is ultimately playing into the hands of the Republicans, What we should be doing is re-framing the debate back towards the issues. This is the only way we can win, and the only way elections should be won. Tomasky implies as much at the end of his article, but he is ambiguous.

So if Michael thinks that we should be more aggressive and creative about controlling the agenda, then I couldn't agree more. But if he is saying that we should just focus on character, then I think this is bad advice.

But there is good news. The polls are getting better. And Kerry has been more aggressive and policy oriented since the convention. What we really need now is some solidarity, and a little patience.

And for my jury duty to finally end.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 4:53 PM
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