Although the Bush Campaign has its shortcomings, managing expectations is not one of them. All along Bush operatives have been insisting that 2004 would be a close campaign. Undoubtedly, that insistence has kept the GOP base from becoming dispirited as the poll numbers from the last few months have indeed shown a likely close race. Before the Democratic convention they were even cagier, predicting a bounce for Kerry that could give him a 15-point lead. The subsequent “no bounce” not only had the effect of keeping the base upbeat but probably also increased doubts about Kerry’s viability among undecided voters.
Now the Bush operatives claim that don’t expect their campaign to get a bounce from the Republicans’ own convention this week. This is surely wise strategy, as it will both keep them from looking like fools and prevent the base from feeling disappointed if no bounce materializes. Yet it is also not very believable. Most of the important factors increasingly point to a Bush bounce after the convention.
Protesters: The only way that the protesters in New York City could hurt Bush is if the police act like the shock troops under Mayor Daley did in 1968. Thus far, Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been conciliatory to the point of being generous to the protesters, enticing them to behave with all sorts of free goodies. This suggests that Mayor Mike has urged the NY police to use restraint should violence occur. Thus, should some of the protesters resort to violence, it will only be a black mark on the anti-war movement, given Americans’ general disdain for violent protests. Many voters also have a low threshold for the sort of looniness that characterizes a lot of anti-war protests, such as comparisons of Bush to Hitler. If the protesters succeed in associating being anti-Bush with violence and/or extremism, it will push a lot of voters into the Bush column.
GOP Convention: It is hard to imagine how this convention could have been managed any better. Thus far, there are no major fights over the platform and no group of delegates threatening to disrupt the proceedings, like a “Republicans Against the War” group. The list of primetime speakers couldn’t get much better. Rudy Giuliani, John McCain and Arnold Schwarzenegger will boost viewership of the convention and put a popular face on the GOP. Having Democratic Senator Zell Miller give the keynote address — assuming his speech is like his book, A National Party No More — will only sow further doubts about the Democrats’ ability to govern in a time of war. A convention that is empty of controversy, filled with popular faces, and topped off with a defector from the other party will put Bush in a good position to get a boost in the polls.
Kerry in August: Another factor that puts Bush in a good position for a bounce is that Kerry has had a terrible month. It began, actually, in late July during his convention speech. Kerry blew his chance to persuade voters to abandon Bush when he failed to give voters any real alternative on foreign policy. Instead, he gave a speech light on the War on Terrorism, and heavy on his Vietnam experience. Then came the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which, with every day that passes, should be renamed the “Kerry Nightmare.” Although the mainstream media have tried to build a defense around Kerry on this issue, the SWVT has landed some serious blows. While not all of the SWVT’s charges are accurate, it has compelled Kerry Campaign to admit that Kerry’s first purple heart was the result of friendly fire and that Kerry was not in Cambodia on Christmas Eve 1968. Combined with the Kerry Campaign’s ham-handed approach to the controversy, the SWVT has succeeded in driving Kerry’s poll numbers down. It appears that a lot of moderate voters are primed to abandon Kerry.
But will they embrace Bush? Much will depend on Bush’s speech Thursday night. If he rattles off a Clinton-like laundry list of mini-initiatives, like he did in the second half of this year’s State of the Union Address, he will have blown it. Bush does much better when he talks about broad themes, and that is what must dominate his convention speech. The “ownership society” is one theme he should emphasize. Focusing on how he believes that individuals should have responsibility and control over their retirement, health-care and education would open up a nice contrast with Kerry.
Most importantly, he need to fill the vacuum that Kerry has left him on foreign policy. Since Kerry has given the voters no vision of where he wants to take our foreign policy in the next four years, Bush must. He needs to give voters an understanding that establishing a functioning democracy in Iraq is vital to winning the War on Terrorism, that free societies do not breed terrorism, and Iraq is the first step in bringing liberty to the Middle East. He should also give voters some idea what the next steps are in the War. What do we do to bring democracy to the rest of the Middle East? How will we handle Iran and North Korea? By addressing such questions, Bush will reassure voters that he knows where he wants to take our foreign policy.
If Bush can do that, he will get a bounce coming out of the convention. Furthermore, he will take command of the foreign policy issue, and Kerry will spend the rest of the campaign trying to catch up. The other factors are in place for this to happen. Bush needs to do the rest.