The Political Truth May Not Be True This Time Around

Posted July 9, 2007 at 5:39pm

There is a political “truth” underpinning much of the political coverage these days. When it comes to voter staying power, conventional wisdom has it that the electorate, overwhelmed by a seemingly “endless” presidential campaign, may burn out on the 2008 election altogether, long before anyone goes to the polls. [IMGCAP(1)]

As the old song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Certainly, there is plenty of complaining about both the length and cost of the presidential campaign. But voters say that every four years, in addition to the media. This time around, however, they also are a little bewildered by the size of the presidential field and frustrated by the general lack of specificity on issues that clearly delineates candidate differences.

Who wouldn’t be confused in a week that saw anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan announce a possible run against Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) over the Iraq War and three Republican Senators try to put some distance between themselves and President Bush over the same issue?

The split in both parties over the immigration bill that failed in the Senate two weeks ago only adds to voter frustration and to the impression that neither party seems capable of finding solutions to the problems Americans care about. That fight caused an ideological rift within both parties, but it also reinforced the growing perception that Democrats, who were elected in 2006 to change Washington, D.C., haven’t kept their promises.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that a little confusion in the electorate eventually will transform into apathy toward the coming elections. The opposite may well be true. In fact, voters simply may be doing what Thomas Jefferson once predicted: “[W]henever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

At the moment, they’re in the information gathering stage. They are paying very close attention to what’s going on because they want things to change and improve, to “set things right.” What is unclear is what their final assessment will be.

Bush’s job approval is grim, but Congressional job approval is worse and Bush won’t be on the ballot. Presidential ballot tests show the race to be tight. So it may be just a little premature to call the next election a slam dunk for Democrats. We’ve all learned the lesson of assuming facts not in evidence.

Likewise, it’s equally foolish to underestimate the candidacies of Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or expect voters to automatically throw Democrats out even with the current Congressional job-approval numbers. In truth, one could paint a scenario in which the pent-up frustration of the American people over endless partisan inaction could just as easily result in the demise of incumbents in both parties.

Interestingly, it is the president who has the opportunity to use this time not only to reposition himself and his party, but also to turn conventional wisdom upside down when it comes to his “lame-duck” status.

He can use August as the staging month for Gen. David Petraeus’ upcoming assessment of progress in Iraq, scheduled for September. Nothing is more important in the runup to the Petraeus testimony than communicating its purpose to the American people. Petraeus will give an operational analysis of the military situation in Iraq, but ultimately it will be the president who will have to weigh Petraeus’ recommendations as he decides what changes are needed in the broader global strategy to defeat radical jihadism.

The loss of support for U.S. operations in Iraq has sapped the president’s political capital. He must turn that around. A good start would be to define the enemy for who they are, how they operate and what they want to do in unambiguous terms. They are radical jihadists bent on the destruction of Western culture, and the American people need to understand the extent of the threat to them and their families.

While I don’t begrudge the president a little time off, this August he might consider an alternative spot to his usual working vacation in Crawford, Texas. Send a strong signal by using Camp David as a base of operations, in preparation for what may be a decisive September. Bring in both Republican and Democratic leaders for serious, lengthy talks. Confer with selected world leaders, particularly British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and key Arab leaders. Meet with top military and diplomatic brass. Have Sunni and Shiite leaders visit for discussions about political progress. Invite both Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to small group meetings. And make this process as transparent as possible.

On the domestic front, the president can use the Camp David meetings with Capitol Hill leaders — Republican and Democratic — to get the appropriations process on a more positive footing. Bush technically may be a lame duck, but every president retains power over the budget through the veto pen.

He will maintain that responsibility for two more budgets before he leaves office. Voters don’t want more partisan bickering, but Bush can make it clear he intends to keep the lid on spending.

August is a crucial opportunity for Bush to regain his voice — as the commander in chief intent on winning the war against radical jihadism and as a president determined to solve problems, starting with government spending.

People will pay attention. They already are.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.