The one point of solace Republicans find today in the polls is this fact: despite how egregiously bad 2004 has thus far gone for President Bush, and regardless of the broad deterioration in the president's poll numbers, John Kerry is still, at best, only a few points ahead of him. And in some cases he's not ahead at all.
This leads to the conclusion -- their conclusion -- that Kerry is a terribly weak candidate, or is running an awful campaign, because he cannot even open up a serious lead against a president whose presidency seems on the verge of collapse on so many fronts.
There's a related line of criticism from Kerry's Democratic partisans. Why is he so silent? With the mix of poor values and incompetent leadership that is at the heart of the Abu Ghraib scandal, why isn't he out there affirmatively making the case against the president?
I've been listening to these criticisms for some time. Indeed, in a pretty prominent venue last month, I made an argument that was at least partly along these lines.
But I've begun to think that all of this is misguided, that whether by design or accident -- and I'm not at all sure which it is -- Kerry is doing more or less exactly what he should.
There are a number of ideas I want to air along these lines. But for now let me start with just a few.
First, what to make of the head-to-head numbers, which show the two candidates close to neck-n-neck down in the mid-to-low 40s? Nothing bad for Kerry, I'd say. Presidents who can't even get near 50% approval going into an election end up losing. It's that simple. In fact, presidents who are a lot closer to 40% than 50% end up getting crushed.
Bush's low numbers are almost infinitely more significant than Kerry's in that regard. Kerry hasn't even been officially nominated yet. He doesn't have a running mate. And the intensity of the news cycle makes it hard for him to get too much face time with the American people.
Now, here's the point I'd like to discuss in a bit more detail: the fact that Kerry can't get a lot of attention to himself right now or that he's not seizing the opportunity to make the case against Bush. I don't think this is a bad thing at all. At least not for now.
Let's think of this battle as a prize fight, with both men in the ring. If you're up on points and the seconds are ticking down on the final round, what do you do?
Simple: stay out of his way.
Trying to land punches when he's desperate and going down gives him the opportunity to hit back. And in such a dire moment that may be all he has. Why give him the opportunity?
With all we're seeing in Iraq right now, does anyone really need to 'make the case'? I'd say the case is making itself. For anyone who can't see it, the case probably can't be made.
The boxing analogy doesn't work perfectly. But let me explain what I'm getting at and get this back to concrete points.
The most salient fact about the contemporary American political landscape is its profound political polarization. And that is almost the last thing the president has going for him. There are forty-plus percent of the electorate on both sides that will stick with their candidate, and fight for him, simply because he opposes the other side. I think that that's one of the few things keeping the president's approval ratings as high as they are.
Further injecting partisan political sensibilities into this current moment will, I think, steady the president and perhaps even help him in his current state.
Of course, that moment can't be avoided. By the late summer and into the fall, the political climate will become intensely polarized as the two campaigns and all their official and unofficial surrogate organizations start pouring money into paid advertising, after the conventions run, and then eventually when the debates are held.
But for now it's salutary for the Democrats to have President Bush the focus -- near exclusively -- of attention. There is, I think, a coalescing sense that President Bush is a failed president -- that key and grave decisions he has made have been the wrong ones and that his leadership and management have been deeply flawed on many fronts. The public mind -- though in a sense a fiction to describe the individial cogitation of three hundred million individuals -- is a powerful reality. And if we look into the 'internals' in these recent polls I think we can see it turning against the president.
Take the president's declining numbers on terrorism.
For more than two years this has been the president's strongest number -- one that stayed strong even after support for his policies on Iraq or the economy declined. I've long thought that this number -- more than any other -- was a measure of public confidence in the president's strength and fortitude.
I say this because, what is confidence in his ability to fight terror a measure of? To judge the president in this regard, all we can really go on is the fact that no other major terrorist incident has occurred within the US.
The other signs are in most cases hidden from the public eye -- or if not hidden, not easily seen. Policy wonks may get into studies about money put into security at America's major seaports or what the president is doing to get the FBI into shape to combat terror. But that's deep in the weeds where few non-policy wonks venture.
In the case of Iraq, the public has something to look at: Iraq. The president's numbers were once very strong on Iraq. But they've fallen dramatically as visible reality has overwhelmed whatever people's assumptions about the president's leadership may have been. Same with the economy.
But, again, on terrorism there's much less concrete for the public to look at. So I think that measure is much more an intuitive sense, a general gut sense of the man himself. And that number -- so long so high -- is now falling and falling fast.
The new CNN/Time poll has Bush leading Kerry on this question by a mere 7 points -- his highest spread on any question.
Why is it falling? There hasn't been a terrorist attack. There were the Clarke revelations, yes. But I don't think these account for the change, at least not in themselves. I think they're falling because Iraq and other failures are eroding the public's belief that the president knows what he's doing and making people believe that his 'toughness', if it exists, is not directed in any productive or beneficial direction.
Now, as I say, the partisan polarization will intensify in the coming months. And that will help the president in many ways, getting some of the attention off him and on to Kerry. But a judgment about the president like the one I've described above, once made, can be hard to unmake. And for the moment, with so many of the president's actions delivering abysmal dividends to the nation he's led, that judgment is being made against the president. So, for the moment, I'm not sure having Kerry give Bush center stage is such a bad thing.