Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Mr. Bush and Mr. Dean

Some thoughts on the State of the Union speech. First, Bush has great speech writers. He always has. Their use of language to reframe and favorably slant issues is second to none. Credit must be given. Obviously the main point of interest in the speech has to be the statement regarding the Kay Report and the continuing programs of mass destruction. This hardly lives up to the billing he gave the WMD threat a year ago, nor does it answer the charges of deception, but it did adequately wallpaper over the problem enough to make it look like the issue is still in contention, and the war still justified. I still see most of the public ambivalent on this issue (most of the anti-war Democrats in Iowa caucused for pro-war candidates), and I think Bush only needs to provide a minimally credible defense on this to keep them that way. Bush did a nice dance on the marriage issue, stressing how important it is to defend marriage, never mentioning what it was marriage had to be defended against. I was rather entertained by his deficit reduction plan, which just happened to be exactly the same plan as John Kerry (reduce it by half by 2008). This would rob the Democrats of one of their best cross-party campaign issues if Kerry or someone of his ilk gets nominated. Hands down my favorite part of the speech was where he spoke about how strongly he supported the Patriot Act, while the camera focused in on John Ashcroft. At least the Dems will still be able to nail him on that popular cross-party issue. The most curious part was his plan for a Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative. I'm holding out to hear the gotcha in this plan, but as he described it, it sounded like a very good thing (and long overdue at that). If there is no gotcha, I'd have to say it is the best proposal put forth by his administration to date.

So moving on, I've had a little while to digest the events in Iowa. To begin with, Dean blew it, big-time. There were many factors involved, I'll just highlight what I think was the biggest. Dean's competitors did a great job of feeding dirt to the media. Much of it was petty and ultimately meaningless, but there are few things that the press likes better than dirt on a leading candidate. If you can get enough dirt circulating (and did they ever) the perception matters more than content. This, of course, should not have been unexpected. The trouble came when the Dean campaign was left without an answer. They could have come out strong to counter the negative issues, or they could have ignored them and hammered away at their core messages. They did neither. Dean allowed himself to be distracted by the negative press, but never effectively addressed it. And he got creamed. His ridiculous speech the evening after hardly helped matters.

But after a day to reflect, I'm not as forlorn about the situation as I was initially. Dean's money and his big organizational jump on the other candidates in the later voting states leave him in a position that is still strong if he doesn't allow all of his momentum to collapse right away. It will essentially come down to New Hampshire for Dean. If he can finish in the top two, it will erase Iowa, and he'll be back in the game. A finish similar to Iowa and he can write his withdrawal speech. He's got a number of positives going into New Hampshire. First, somebody hit his campaign with a cluestick (I guess if yesterday didn't spark some introspection, nothing would have). The speeches he gave today were rock solid, and the new ad they're running is a huge improvement over what we saw on the air in Iowa. Next, he's closer to home and in a friendlier demographic. Even while he focused attention on Iowa and Clark zeroed in on him in NH, and NH saw all the same negative news as Iowa, his decline in NH was much slower than in Iowa. According to their new polls, the immediate hit he took from the caucus is less pronounced than I would have expected, although Kerry did take the top spot (it looks like Clark absorbed as much of the Kerry surge as Dean did). If Dean survives New Hampshire without being embarassed, I like his chances in the next couple rounds of primaries.

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