Senator Zell Miller, (D-GA) made an interesting point when he addressed a meeting I chaired last week. He asked the audience if they remembered the comic strip “Li’l Abner”? Less than half did. He went on to explain that there was a character, Joe Btfsplk, who always had a rain cloud above his head. No matter how sunny the rest of the strip was, Joe never escaped the rain cloud. That character in today’s politics, said Sen. Miller, is John Kerry. Miller went on to recite all of the good economic news in today’s economy and then added, “Kerry’s talking about the Great Depression.”
It is true that politicians who take a glum view of the world don’t do as well as those who are positive and upbeat. In that respect the political parties have switched roles. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt built the New Deal on deficit spending, the Republicans donned their green eyeshades and began to warn the nation of the dire consequences of spending more than you take in. The voters listened to all of this and contrasted it with the positive “we can do it together” message of the Democrats, and they gave the Democrats 20 years at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
It was only when things really got bad (Korea, corruption and Communism) did the voters finally turn to war hero General Dwight David Eisenhower. Even then Ike might have won as a Democrat. He didn’t make up his mind which party to join until about year and a half before the 1952 election. It was about that same time Ike got baptized, too (as a Presbyterian). Ike had an essentially negative message (urged on him by then-Senate GOP leader Robert A. Taft after Taft declared that the Eisenhower campaign was running “like a dry creek”). It would have been interesting, however, if Ike had decided to become a Democrat. He could not have had a negative message, as it would have been against his own party. So Ike, who had a rather sunny disposition anyway, might well have won for the Democrats with a positive message if the Republicans had nominated the somewhat dour Taft. Of course, we’ll never know.
Walter Mondale tried to run against incumbent President Ronald Reagan with a highly negative theme. Not only did he constantly warn of deficits, but he said he would raise taxes. Reagan’s slogan was “It’s morning in America.” I have to say, when I first saw the commercials about “morning in America” I did not like them. In fact, I didn’t think they would work. The nation was facing serious problems. The Soviets were still a great threat. We were coming out of a serious recession. But I was dead wrong. Mondale’s doom and gloom view of the world was overwhelmingly rejected. The voters loved Reagan’s upbeat look at the world. He won a 49-state landslide.
The rap on Al Gore, if you think about it, is that he failed to emphasize the roaring economy of the 1990s that created 22 million new jobs. Instead, Gore chose to warn about the dangers of the internal combustion engine, global warming and a host of other problems. That may well have cost him what should have been a Bush 41-style victory. Bush 41 won a convincing victory in 1988 giving voters “Reagan’s third term”. Gore should have been able to give voters Clinton’s third term. Instead he ran away from Clinton.
Now we come to 2004. Bush, despite having weathered a recession, the effects of 9/11 and so on, is running mostly an upbeat positive campaign. Of course, he has that little problem known as Iraq to contend with. No President in recent times has had anything like the day-after-day negative coverage that Bush has experienced. It is unprecedented. We hear now that even the Gallup poll says that a majority of Americans believe going into Iraq was a mistake. One can only speculate what the situation would be like if the media had not overblown every negative story possible.
Then there is Sen. Kerry. He is not contrasting himself with Bush much on Iraq. Oh, he says he would involve more nations at the UN. Presumably since Kerry can speak the once diplomatic language, French, he will get nations to flock to the US to help in Iraq. Right. He does want to send 40,000 more American troops to Iraq. And he wants to pay for that by eliminating our missile defense program.
Kerry says that not only is the deficit going to ruin the lives of our grandchildren, but also we have the worst economy since the Great Depression. In the Depression, as my father preached to me often, more than two in ten Americans were unemployed. That is as opposed to 5.6% unemployment now. That translates to a little more than a half a person in ten being unemployed. The economy is growing at the fastest rate since 1984. The economy is creating jobs at a great rate but Kerry says they are minimum wage jobs. Bush says half of the new jobs are above average in wages and benefits. It is not clear whose message is getting through. Some polls suggest that the public trusts Kerry more on the economy than the President.
You have heard it before but, trust me, there has never been an election like this one in modern times. The incumbent President has very high negatives. His job approval hovers in the high 40s. That is just high enough so that he might recover. Any lower and he would be dead…the way Jimmy Carter was in 1980.
The challenger does not have high positive ratings either. The Iraq issue has decimated the Bush lead on his greatest strength, leadership in the War against Terrorism. Very clearly, what is driving this election is the tremendous intensity of the Bush opponents. They want him out of office more than anything else. Morton Blackwell has often taught us that elections are battles of political activists and the more highly motivated of those usually prevails. If that is the case, Bush may as well plan on turning the keys to the White House over to Senator Kerry. The leftist activists could care less about Senator Kerry. In fact, many just plain don’t like him. But they want Bush out so badly they will work feverishly to defeat him. I do not find a comparable group of volunteers for Bush. True, the Bush campaign has recruited an unprecedented number of precinct captains in every part of the nation. Still these folks, by and large, do not have the intensity of their liberal counterparts. Bush doesn’t inspire the sort of emotional commitment on the part of ordinary Americans that Ronald Reagan did. That is in no way a comment on his abilities as President. It is a personality thing.
Speaking of personality, I asked Zell Miller, who heads the Democrats for Bush operation, who he thought would win the election. He replied, “I don’t have any polls, but I think Bush will eventually prevail for two reasons. First, when voters think about whom they really want to lead the country on the War on Terror, they will pick Bush. Bush is an outstanding leader and I’ve never seen Kerry offer leadership on anything in his twenty years in the Senate. Second, Bush is a genuinely nice person. He is the sort of person you would like to have as your neighbor. He is friendly. He makes you feel comfortable. Kerry is not a very nice person. He almost never smiles. He is arrogant. You wouldn’t want to live next door to him. Bush will win because he can relate to the average American voter and Kerry cannot.”
That’s an interesting theory. If Miller turns out to be correct, we will have to change the old adage “nice guys finish last”. If Bush wins in part because he is a pleasant person, parents will be teaching their kids “Nice guys get elected President”.