Have Rove & Bush Lost Their Mojo?

GOP Campaign 2004 graphic, featuring George W. Bush, the GOP elephant, and the American flag (3-12-03) AP / CBS

This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
An unexamined and unspoken assumption behind the vast majority of publicly perpetrated election analysis holds that the Republicans will have strategic and tactical superiority this year simply because Republicans are better at strategy and tactics than Democrats.

The most cynical strain of this thinking says that President Bush's chief political adviser, Karl Rove, is not the Boy Genius of his nickname, but an Evil Genius, pulling the strings of a puppet president happy to do anything to get re-elected. Together, they can conjure up Osama in October or make the market soar after Labor Day.

The milder manifestation simply observes that this Republican political team, which has won three elections together, has discipline, organization, pragmatism and oodles of money, whereas Democrats have disorganization, factions, wishful thinking and money trouble.

Well, guess what? It's beginning to look as if the vaunted Karl and George team has developed a serious case of tin ear syndrome. The evidence is mounting:

  • The campaign's first flight of ads was blasted as soon as it hit air by a barrage of political buckshot for using images of 9/11. Unions and victims, predictably, accused Bush-Cheney of exploitation and tastelessness. Their complaints were widely covered and gabbed about on cable news shows, talk radio and the Web, perhaps obliterating any good the ads may have done.

    Many professional tacticians also think Bush's first volley should have been negative, defining John Kerry to an electorate that really doesn't know him well.

    Campaign Counter-spin: We inoculated ourselves early. There was no way we weren't going to use the president's response to 9/11 as a cornerstone of our ads and campaign; the bloody convention is in New York after all. So now we've got the flap over with eight months before the election. The story has no legs and we can run any ad we want from now on. And there's plenty of time for negative ads, we were smart not to lead with them.

  • Attention to Bush's National Guard Service -- or lack thereof -- grew so hot and his poll numbers so cold that he did the unthinkable; he submitted to a Sunday morning network grilling. The act itself smelled of weakness and panic.

    His performance got poor reviews, especially from Republicans. Conservative columnist and Reagan speechwriter, Peggy Noonan wrote, "The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse. He did not seem prepared." Yeah, and his poll numbers haven't improved either.

    Campaign Counter-spin: Again, the president inoculated himself from more trouble with the AWOL charges and he grabbed headlines from the John Kerry wins-a-week-machine for a couple of days.

  • In January, Vice President Cheney went off the reservation, as they say, and regurgitated his certainty that Iraq had al Qaeda ties and that the famous Iraqi trailers we found were mobile labs for banned weapons – two sensitive claims the administration has backed away from. This is the regime so famous for its message discipline?

    Cheney's poll numbers were tanking too, feeding rumors he was going to be pulled from the ticket. So Cheney, like the boss, was sent out to do a round of interviews, except he faced only non-network broadcasters. So by early March, both the president and vice president have been sent out on dangerous clean-up missions.

    Campaign Counter-spin: Our conservative base loves Cheney and he's staying on the ticket. Non-story.

  • Speaking of the conservative base, they're going nuts as they realize that their man is a gen-u-wine big-spending, big-government Texan. Since he unveiled yet another deficit-laden budget, the squawking from fiscal conservatives has gotten nasty. Normally friendly policy polemicists have been very critical, very publicly, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, The Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and the Club for Growth. The issue grew sharp, yellow election-day fangs when Alan Greenspan said that Social Security benefits may have to be cut to scale back the new deficits.

    Campaign Counter-spin: Budget-schmudget.

  • The right flank was cranky enough over his deficits and liberalized immigration policy that Bush was forced to come out for a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Conservatives might have gone loco if hadn't, but it's a risky move when it comes to courting independents, moderates and other hybrids. Polls show many do oppose gay marriage but they also oppose a constitutional amendment banning it. There's no evidence that this is an issue swing voters want their president swinging about.

    Campaign Counter-spin: This is a great culture war wedge issue and if you'd get away from the left and right coasts, you'd say it makes Massachusetts John Kerry look like what Jeanne Kirkpatrick called a "San Francisco-style Democrat." And that's just fine by us.

  • The campaign still doesn't have a good story to peddle when it comes to the home front. The "war president" and "steady leadership in times of change" shtick is fine, but ministers to only half the worries, at best.

    The prime legislative actions the president wants to take credit for are the No Child Left Behind education bill and extending prescription drug benefits to Medicare. Both are unpopular now. Towns and even a bunch of states are trying to opt out of the whole Left Behind scheme. And polls show voters disapprove of the Medicare changes so far.

    Job anxiety remains high. "Outsourcing" jobs to India and other undeserving foreign locales is the hot button issue du jour. Unfortunately for Bush, his top economic adviser issued a report extolling the virtues of outsourcing. Talk about a tin ear!

    Campaign Counter-spin: Two words: tax cuts. Democrats always want to get fancy with their economics. Let 'em. Here's what we do: promise to cut the voters taxes. It works in November.

    All this adds up to a pretty good dumb streak. But it's only March. And Bush-Cheney '04 has not yet begun to spend.


    Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.

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    Against the Grain. We will publish some of the interesting (and civil) ones.


    By Dick Meyer
    • Dick Meyer

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