Wednesday, August 18, 2004

What Goes Around...

I'm enough of an egomaniac to find it gratifying when some dumb idea I had later shows up in the mainstream media or the published ponderings of the punditariat. So it is today, as a guest op-ed in the New York Times by former Ronald Reagan pollster Richard Wirthlin considers how John Kerry might turn Reagan's biggest gun from the 1980 election against the Gipper's self-anointed true son and heir currently occupying the Oval Office.

Here's what I wrote about this, Saturday evening on (where else?)

...the famous analysis Reagan advanced when he was running against Jimmy Carter--"Are you better off today than you were four years ago?"--probably is a valid way to look at the country as a whole, and render some verdict on those who are in charge of it. The exercise of democracy--voting for president every four years--actually demands that we indicate at least a preliminary opinion on the job they're doing, and in terms of what happens in the real world that opinion is probably more important than "the verdict of history" (though IMO that is also pretty important).

Now, the president doesn't have everything to do with the answer to Reagan's question--stuff happens, from 9/11 to the bad part of the business cycle--but my view (admittedly biased, but I hope broadly informed) is that in everything from long-term economic outlook to national security to international standing to "process stuff"--which is everything from the privileging of disinterested expertise I was talking about in my last post, to the approach to regulation (financial, environmental, etc) and general keeping faith with the core principles of the country--the question is answered with a shattering NO.

And here's Wirthlin, in today's article:

I fear that something Ronald Reagan, David Gergen and I did 24 years ago may have armed Senator John Kerry with a potentially lethal rhetorical weapon. While helping Mr. Reagan prepare for his debate with President Jimmy Carter, we came up with what was probably the most devastating line Mr. Reagan used against Mr. Carter: "Are you better off than you were four years ago?"
Of course, the question is better suited to a challenger than an incumbent, and Mr. Reagan could ask it with reasonable confidence that most voters would answer no; it is doubtful whether that same certainty exists for President Bush.

Now, in the rest of the article Wirthlin gamely tries to frame a way in which Bush could offer an affirmative answer to the question... well, sort of. What he really does is tell an amusing story about how Bush turned a favored rhetorical device of Al Gore's back against him in 2000--something I totally missed, reminding me once again of just how tuned out I was from an election in which I detested both of the principal contenders; considering the 2000 Phillies were even more pathetic than this year's edition, I really wonder just what the hell I spent my time thinking about that summer--and then offers this less-than-rousing recommendation:

Likewise, President Bush must take "Are you better off?" out of play for Mr. Kerry. He can do this by laying out the list of reasons Americans are better off, particularly on issues of security in the broad sense. He must persuade voters that while America continues to gain traction during one of the most challenging times in our nation's history, those successes would be reversed were John Kerry to be elected.

Listen closely, dear friends, and you'll hear the faint but unmistakeable sound of whistling in the dark. ("Continues to gain traction"?)For one thing, this approach isn't exactly resonant with the "optimist" mantle that Bush has tried to claim; for another, Kerry need only point to tangible measures--from the stepped-up incidence of terror attacks post-9/11 compared to pre-, to poll numbers showing America's global prestige at an all-time low, to reporting that the number of "Iraqi insurgents" has increased about tenfold since Bush declared Mission Accomplished, to demolish the "better-off" claim. (As for economic measures, last month's anemic job-growth numbers have sent the Bushistas running hell-bent from their earlier claims of "turning the corner"; a man can take only so many comparisons to Herbert Hoover.) Wirthlin, of course, is not dumb; from his pundit's perch, he's secure enough to suggest what Bush should do, but he probably knows damn well that actually doing it is close to impossible.

By the way, in my philliesphans post I invited conservatives to offer their own reasons why we as a country are better off today than we were four years ago. Not one of them responded.

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