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August 17, 2006

Pick a Fight and Lay the Iraq War on Bush

Chris Bowers lays it on the line for our Democratic candidates.  Everything he says concretizes what Kos and Jerome wrote in "Crashing the Gate".  This is brilliant work.  Chris Bowers is what Karl Rove would be like if he had a heart.  He is a master strategist who works both at the detail level and at the conceptual level.  He is a political scientist in the best sense of the phrase.  Okay, enough praise.  Let's see what he's done this time:

To: Democratic Congressional Challengers
Re: CA-50 Post-Special Election (Busby-Bilbray) Polling Memo

Fall Election Environment Overview:

This fall, you will face a grotesque political environment, one that requires strategic knowledge, great courage and fortitude to successfully navigate. Facing low approval ratings, Republicans will introduce you to the voters as a flip-flopping, gay-loving, liberal terrorist coddler who wants to cut and run from Iraq, all at the behest of self-absorbed Hollywood moguls and liberal elites.

The establishment Democrats have proven ineffective at combating this positioning, introducing empty slogans like `Together we can do better' that no one repeats or remembers, and policy proposals that few voters believe Democrats are capable of enacting. Most of the polling and advice you'll get from DC insiders and journalists will largely rehash bad information, false choices and irrelevant answers to poorly framed questions. If you take their advice, you will not make significant headway in convincing voters you are best to represent them. And when you lose, it'll be you who ran a bad campaign, not "them." Just ask Francine Busby how that works.

Perhaps worst of all, you will probably face some form of October surprise from the Republicans and your opponent: a game-changing event or message stream. And you will be blind-sided because establishment Democrats will be caught off-guard. Again. And you and your campaign will pay the price of their failure.

Realistically, when it comes to developing a winning position and messaging, you are on your own. Or rather, you are on your own, except that the voters - Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike - agree with the outrage that you feel towards the political system and agree that Republican leadership is the problem. Yet, voters will only vote for change if they know you can deliver on that change once elected.

He tells us why the data from CA-50 is so important:

Bowers tells us that Francine Busby ran on the "culture of corruption" theme.  Makes sense.  She was running for "Duke" Cunningham's open seat which is open because he is in jail for taking millions in bribes.  The Republican in the race, Brian Bilbray is a former Republican lobbyist.  She lost even though the DCCC spent more than $5 million on this race and she had the help of the best Democratic consultants.  She lost because she ran a policy-heavy campaign.  Bilbray focused on cracking down on illegal immigrants.  Neither candidate got the Independent voters.  They didn't much vote for either major candidate because neither one of them had defined themselves well.  Since it was a right-leaning district, the Republican won.

Bowers did a great deal of polling this summer to find out what the voters think about the country and what is going on right now, along with the information on why they did or didn't vote for Busby.   Bowers learned what I shared with you the other day on its own; Republicans are deeply split over the situation in Iraq.  The details:

  • 63% of Republican voters believe that Bush has made some or a lot of mistakes in Iraq.
  • 34% of Republican voters believe that Bush has definitely or probably not told the truth about the situation in Iraq.
  • 34% of Republican voters believe that Bush should probably or definitely be held accountable for the situation in Iraq.
  • 40% of Republican voters believe that the Democratic Party is more likely to hold Bush accountable for mistakes in Iraq.

His analysis is brilliant, which I guess is another way of saying, "I agree with it."

While the country is open to the idea of partial or total troop withdrawal, according to our data in CA-50 existing withdrawal messaging loses badly to Republican `cut and run' counter-attack messaging. This suggests that voters are seeking a set of actors in Congress who will tell the truth about the war and hold Bush accountable for mistakes. This is in contrast to an immediate end to the conflict and /or yet another withdrawal plan that Congress cannot enact. Voters intuitively understand that Congress doesn't run the military, and that regardless of the outcome of the 2006 election, Bush will be in charge of the military until 2009. As such, framing the election as a choice between rival Congressional military plans sacrifices the credibility of Democratic candidates who can only legitimately promise to hold hearings, restore congressional oversight of military matters, locate and identify blame, and serve as a check on a widely disliked and distrusted President.

His recommendations:

Candidates should run aggressively on accountability and the war in Iraq. Here are six specific `rules of thumb' we recommend you use for planning purposes.

1. Iraq must be central in your campaign and you must blame Republicans for it Ignoring Iraq, downplaying its significance, or accepting Bush's framework by not blaming leaders is a sign to voters that you are weak, unlikely to bring change, and not addressing the main issue of the day. Regardless of how you approach the policy going forward in Iraq, the key trait that voters seek is a willingness to hold failed leaders accountable for the debacle. Be willing to uncover the truth, place blame, and demand consequences.

2. The debate on whether Bush is a competent, trustworthy President is over. He is considered among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents a leader who makes mistakes and then won't tell the truth about those mistakes. This is not about competence. This is about massive failure of leadership with no end in sight.

3. Republicans cannot run against Bush and Iraq. Voters do not think that Republicans are willing to hold Bush or other administration figures accountable for those mistakes, so Republican Congressional dissent on the war is unlikely to help Republicans. But dissent will, in fact, work to Democratic candidates' advantage. It shows strength and, most importantly, principle and personal values.

4. `Terrorism' scares only work in the absence of strong accountability messaging, since Republicans are no longer trustworthy on issues of war and peace. Voters know Republicans will let mistakes slide and they want accountability in the face of that.

5.  Oversight beats withdrawal. Journalists or other messengers who frame politics in terms of a need to have an alternative plan in contrast to Bush are insulting voters, and should be taken to task aggressively for framing false choices and misrepresenting the role of Congress. Congress primarily serves as military oversight, not military policy. Voters know that.

6. Pick a fight, any fight. Voters need to be convinced that Democrats can credibly challenge Bush. Whether the fight is over de-funding Cheney's personal staff, attacking John Bolton's confirmation, impeachment hearings, or stopping war profiteering with a new `Truman Commission', Democratic candidates must demonstrate strength through aggressive confrontation where the term "accountability" is more than just an abstraction or corporate lingo. It must be made real through a fight you plan to pick.

When presented with squeals from journalists and Republicans over your fight, a resolute willingness to not back off in the face of criticism is key. Your willingness to hold Bush accountable must be made real. For example, demand that the president and the party in power come to account for having squandered lives, security and treasure while enriching CEOs of major corporations such as Halliburton.

Here's a real-world example of this dynamic from US history: Harry Truman became vice president because as a US Senator, he had the backbone to demand that major figures in the American economy either give back money stolen in the provision of shoddy materiel for World War II, or go to jail for treason.

In sum, whatever fights you pick, whether specific local issues or national ones, our poll shows that accountability regarding Bush, Congressional Republicans and your opponent is crucial to building the credibility you need in order to break through with a majority vote in November. Democrats, Independents and even many Republicans want this to occur. Do it.

Posted by Lynn Allen on August 17, 2006 at 09:22 PM in Strategery | Permalink

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