The Medicare bill that President Bush signed into law yesterday will show up in lots of ads once the presidential campaign season truly gets under way next year. But right now, the president’s political strategists are involved in an even more important campaign.
For many months, the Bush campaign has been working hard to match the get-out-the-vote power–now called “voter contact”–that heavy labor-union support gives Democrats. The big unions have vowed to put on their most extensive effort ever to mobilize voters against Bush in 2004.
In addition, for the first time, Democratic candidates will have powerful help from new Democratic support groups like America Coming Together. Funded with $10 million from zillionaire George Soros–who has said he would spend every penny he had if it would guarantee the defeat of the president–America Coming Together will focus on voter contact in key competitive states.
So it is imperative that Bush get going now. Not in January, not at convention time, but now. (Not long ago, the Washington Post ran a lead story about Bush’s voter-contact efforts headlined “Election Is Now For Bush Campaign: Early Efforts Aim To Amass Voters”–as if an effort to counter months of Bush-bashing by nine Democratic presidential candidates was somehow “early.”)
In some ways, it’s surprising that the Bush campaign is still a relatively low-profile affair. In months past, some observers wondered whether Bush might try to replay the reelection strategy of Bill Clinton. Nearly a year and a half before the 1996 election, according to former Clinton political adviser Dick Morris, Clinton okayed a massive advertising campaign.
“Week after week, month after month, from early July 1995 more or less continually until election day in ‘96, we bombarded the public with ads,” Morris wrote in his memoir Behind the Oval Office. “This unprecedented campaign was the key to success.”
When inside-the-Clinton-camp antagonists like Harold Ickes argued that nobody in 1996 would remember ads that aired in 1995, Morris “countered by predicting that if we brought legislative issues into every American’s home through ads, the Republican issues would be dead before the race even started.”
Clinton sided with Morris and soon became “the day-to-day operation director of our TV-ad campaign. He worked over every script, watched each ad, ordered changes in every visual presentation, and decided which ads would run when and where.”
Now, that wasn’t exactly legal–in 1997, the Post’s Bob Woodward, with an almost touching innocence, reported that the ads might have violated “strict spending limits faced by presidential candidates.” And in fact, they did–but they worked. Just ask Bob Dole.
Several months ago, a reporter brought up the Clinton strategy with a member of the Bush circle. If Clinton was running ads in July ‘95–well, was Bush planning something similar in July ‘03? The person close to Bush dismissed the idea completely. Not gonna happen, he said.
Perhaps surprisingly, one person who fully agrees with Bush’s decision not to imitate Clinton is Dick Morris. “In Clinton’s case, there weren’t going to be any developments which would save him,” Morris says. “The economy wasn’t going to get better; it was already good. There wasn’t a war that was going to work out okay, one hopes. The only thing that was really going to change in the Clinton administration was the perception of him.”
With Bush, on the other hand, “the reality is changing,” Morris says. “Bush needed there to be more positive reality before he could advertise. He needed to have something to say.” Now, Morris believes, Bush has that something. “I think that now it would make a great deal of sense for him to be advertising the prescription drug benefit and the increasingly improving economic news.”
And, of course, Bush can run as many ads as he wants, having opted out of the federal campaign-finance system and its “strict spending limits.” The reformers will fret, of course, but they’ve been fretting all along–and have far less room to criticize Bush now that Howard Dean and John Kerry have opted out of the system, too.
A Bush ad campaign would be a twofer. On one hand, it would highlight Bush’s accomplishments (He can ram through a bad Medicare bill over the objections of his conservative base!) On the other hand, it would emphasize that Democrats have been obstructing him every step of the way.
One of the main issues of the coming campaign will be Democratic efforts to derail the Bush agenda, whether it be energy legislation, judiciary nominations, or malpractice reform. No single issue would be a major winner for Republicans, but together they constitute a pattern of Democratic negativity that may turn off voters.
They are also perfect subjects for negative ads. And there are a few former Democratic senators, defeated in 2002, who can attest to that.
The Bush air campaign will be especially needed as the Democratic presidential primaries draw near. Bush’s aspiring challengers will be all over TV in key states attacking not only each other, but the president as well.
“I think it’s important for Bush to engage in ads to offset that,” says Morris. And now would be a good time to start.
–A version of this piece appeared previously in The Hill.