Wednesday, May 5, 2004

Don’t Freak Out

From Salon.com (subscription / Day Pass required):

With just months to go in an election that ought to be a referendum on President Bush, the New York Times runs a front-page story: The Democrats are in serious trouble. Although Bush’s approval ratings are low, the presumptive Democratic nominee can’t get any traction. His campaign “continues to confront a cloud of doubts and reservations,” the Times says, and voters are complaining that he hasn’t offered the country a clear vision for the future.

It may sound like the Times on John Kerry in 2004. In fact, it’s the Times on Bill Clinton in 1992.

The media began making funeral plans for the Kerry campaign over the weekend, and the New York Times led the way with a gloomy front-pager by Adam Nagourney. As it turns out, the predictions of Kerry’s demise were more replay than revelation. It’s certainly true that Kerry has problems — his campaign lacks the money, the organizational structure, and the message discipline of the well-oiled Bush-Cheney machine — but we’ve heard this before.

The Times painted an equally dour assessment of Clinton’s prospects in a front-page piece in April 1992 headlined “Clinton Dogged by Voter Doubt.” The Times said then that unnamed “political professionals in the Democratic Party” were troubled that Clinton hadn’t made a better impression on the nation’s voters. Nagourney’s piece Sunday reported that “Democratic Party officials” have similar worries about Kerry.

But there’s a key difference here: In April 1992, the New York Times/CBS News poll showed Clinton trailing President George H.W. Bush, 49 percent to 40 percent, among registered voters. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows Kerry and President George W. Bush in a statistical dead heat.

Clinton beat Bush 43 percent to 37 percent in November 1992.

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What’s causing it is the widespread perception that Kerry should be squashing Bush right now. Bush has just had the worst month of his presidency. His war on Iraq seems to have spiraled out of control: More than 130 U.S. troops — and 10 times as many Iraqis — were killed in April, and the United States has lost the support of Spain and several other coalition members. The bipartisan commission investigating the attacks of Sept. 11 has raised questions about the administration’s inattentiveness to warnings of terror, and revelations from Bob Woodward and others have made it clear that Bush was obsessed with ousting Saddam Hussein even as U.S. troops were being deployed in Afghanistan. Bush stumbled through a rare prime-time news conference, and allegations that the president was AWOL during Vietnam resurfaced among stories of Kerry’s war heroism.

Instead of running laps around Bush, Kerry is neck and neck with him in the national polls and still trying to define himself while defending against Republican attacks. “George Bush has had three of the worst months of his presidency, but they are stuck and they’ve got to move past this moment,” Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign, told the Times.

Democratic analysts and strategists told Salon, however, that they think concerns about Kerry’s progress are overstated. “The Democrats are overeager,” says Ann Richards, the former Texas governor who branded Bush the elder as a spoiled rich kid and then lost a re-election bid to Bush the son. “They’re anxious for this contest to gel, and it’s too early for that.”

Richards said Democrats are unaccustomed to having a presumptive nominee so early; at this point in the Clinton-Bush race, Clinton was still fending off former California Gov. Jerry Brown. “They are extremely impatient, and when that’s expressed to me privately by well-intentioned individuals, I tell them to focus their attention on what they can do, not what the nominee should be doing.”

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But Kerry needs more than offices and staff; he needs high-profile help to help him fend off Bush-Cheney attacks. While Bush has a hatchet man for a vice president and a cadre of Republican senators happy to lead the smear du jour against Kerry, it is frequently Kerry alone who must answer. While Kerry has relied in recent months on help from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., they have faded from the scene of late — perhaps the press simply no longer considers them news — and no one has taken their place. The Democrats’ would-be surrogate in chief, Bill Clinton, has been holed away in Chappaqua finishing his long-awaited memoirs amid speculation that instead of boosting Kerry’s profile this summer, he might actually steal the limelight.

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Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and the Center for American Progress, says it’s possible that the Bush-Cheney attacks on Kerry’s war-hero status may be driving down Kerry’s numbers in states that are safely Republican but may not be helping Bush in swing states. “It looked like Bush was making some headway in the battleground states at the end of March, but in April things may have gone the other way,” he said.

Presidential elections don’t turn on the national vote — just ask President Al Gore — and Teixeira said that polling from critical swing states is so sporadic and inconsistent that it’s hard to make solid predictions about Electoral College numbers. But like many other Democrats, he says any panic about Kerry’s prospects is “way too much, way too soon.”

“We’re six months away from the election,” Teixeira said. “People think that just because Bush got a lot of bad news, Kerry should be 10 points ahead. I think they’re kidding themselves.”

Kerry has made mistakes, Teixeira said, and he’ll have to start performing better. But beating Bush is “quote, doable,” he said, and Kerry can do it. “It’s a fair statement that Kerry is going to have to run a good campaign to beat him, but it’s far too early to conclude he’s incapable of doing it.”

To quote the immortal Dr. Who: “Don’t Panic.”