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:
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.
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.
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.
Campaign Counter-spin: Budget-schmudget.
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 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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By Dick Meyer