"If Bush can win reelection despite the failure of his two most consequential -- and truly radical -- decisions, he will truly be a political miracle man. But as his own nominating convention approaches, the odds are against him."
Those are the words of Washington Post columnist David Broder in a column that appeared in Sunday's paper. And I reprint them because I think they mark a significant milestone simply because of Broder's role in defining conventional wisdom in Washington.
A few days ago I was talking to a friend about the coverage of the presidential campaign and how Washington's chattering classes have remained stuck in a mind-set that judges this a dead-even race -- or even one the president is bound to win -- long after the objective criteria -- to the extent there can be such a thing -- have said otherwise.
By objective criteria, I'm referring mainly to poll numbers which show Kerry consistently besting the president, though often by numbers which are in the margin of error for the given poll.
(See pollingreport.com's summary table of recent presidential polls for an example. Since August 1st, the Gallup poll has twice found President Bush beating Kerry among likely voters -- by 3 and 4 points. But every other public poll taking this month has Kerry ahead.)
The additional fact to note, of course, is that incumbent presidents tend to get what they poll in head-to-head match-ups. Thus, if past races are any indicator, if a poll says Bush 46, Kerry 47, Bush will probably end up getting about 46% of the vote while Kerry will pick up most of the rest of the uncommitteds.
Other measures of independents all show danger signs for the president. And some further indication can be found down-ballot -- especially on the senate side. But my point here isn't to get into the nitty-gritty of the polling numbers. These are pretty conventional ways to interpret polling data. My point is only to argue -- as Charlie Cook has been arguing in his recent columns -- that if you go by conventional ways of reading the numbers, both nationwide and in key swing states, President Bush is on the way to losing this race.
That sense of the race has hardly settled in among pundits or daily newspaper reporters, or if it has, it hasn't shown through in their copy. And yet here you have David Broder writing a column which, though it says many things, says mainly that President Bush is likely to be thrown out of office -- not because John Kerry is lighting the hustings on fire, but simply because President Bush's fundamental policy decisions have failed and voters are going to hold him accountable.
That perception, that conventional wisdom, once it takes hold, can have a poisonous effect on the efforts of the perceived loser. And when that perception begins to take hold among Republicans, if it does, it will set off a vicious internal dynamic within the party.
And so this, I think, will be the key issue over the next three weeks, as we build up to and then come out of the Republican convention: when does the CW defined by Broder -- the veritable pontiff of beltway CW -- start registering? If the polls change it may never, of course. But if not, when does the president start moving ahead in the polls? Can the GOP convention fundamentally shift the dynamic of the race? And, if not, when do the first signs of panic begin to appear within the president's ranks?
The GOP convention now seems like it'll be a much more high-stakes affair than the DNC.