(Captain's log): Michael writes:
You've written on a couple of occasions about, as you put it, "The Bush Masterstroke". It seems to me that we've gone quite a while now without one.
I'm wondering if you see one coming, or circumstances under which such a play could be made. The obvious assumption would be that such a move would, by necessity, have to come before the election.
One such case was this article, in which I wrongly predicted a masterstroke for late January 2003. (You know how it goes...)
I've thought about that. Of course, such a masterstroke isn't always possible. Opportunities for such things don't come along every day. Also, when I wrote about that I was talking about cases where Bush eventually made some specific critical speech, or enumerated some specific critical policy, which fundamentally changed everything. I doubt anything like that is coming.
There's a more generic sense of this, however, which some refer to as "rope-a-dope" (in reference to the famous tactic used by Muhammad Ali to some of his last major boxing matches). Bush is also distinctive because of the fact that he seems to largely ignore his critics, and tends to let themselves wear themselves out and use up their ammunition. When he thinks the time is right, he then opens up on them and tends to bury them. I think something like that's coming, and it's going to be even more important than any of the previous ones.
A common lament by people who hate Bush begins with the fact that in the 2000 election, Gore got more votes total nationally than Bush did. That is not unprecedented; there have been several previous Presidential elections in which the loser got more total votes than the winner.
Their claim about the popular vote in 2000 is true. But the popular vote is irrelevant, and the claim itself is specious. We don't choose the President using the national popular vote; we choose the President via votes in the electoral college. Both the Bush and Gore campaigns tailored their campaign strategies towards prevailing in the electoral college. If our Constitutional system selected the President based on popular vote, both campaigns would have been run entirely differently, and there's no way to know who would have won.
Similarly, I think it's clear that a lot of the attention being paid right now to polls of voter preference is misguided. You see a lot of articles and blog posts which say, "If the election were held today, this is how the electoral votes would probably split."
Those poll numbers don't matter. They also don't predict anything. The election isn't being held today. It will be held in November, and the only poll which will really matter is the November election. If the election had been scheduled for now, both campaigns would have behaved much differently this spring, and the poll numbers we'd be seeing today would be much different. But the election isn't being held today, and the Republicans haven't started their campaign.
I don't know exactly when the Republican campaign will finally get serious. It doesn't seem likely they'll wait until October, so my best guess is it will be in September some time.
And I am pretty confident that when they do really get serious, the consequences for the Kerry campaign will be catastrophic. After the November election, a lot of people are going to wonder why it was that anyone ever thought that Kerry had a substantial chance of winning.
And part of the reason it's going to go so badly for Kerry is that there is very careful low-level preparation going on.
In the run up to the invasion of Iraq last year, there was broad consensus among observers (including me) that there would be one to two weeks of air preparation before ground ops began (which was still viewed as a radical change compared to the six weeks of air preparation before ground action in 1991). CENTCOM crossed everyone up when it began ground operations on the first day of active hostilities.
It turned out that CENTCOM had already done most of the important air preparation in the previous year, slowly, gradually, subtly. Some of that hit the news (e.g. a bombing attack that took out a critical fiber communications junction and cut off telecommunications between Baghdad and southern Iraq) but most of it did not.
I can see hints of that kind of careful preparation being done politically and diplomatically, which will turn out to be critical for the campaign. I think that some of Bush's international actions recently have been partially intended to undermine Kerry.
Let's make clear that I do not think that has been the only motive for the Bush administration. I do not see any case in foreign policy where I have concluded that they seriously sacrificed the nation's interests solely to gain a campaign advantage. (Domestic policy is a different matter, but I don't want to go into that.)
But there have been cases where choices have been made and policies selected in part because of their effect on the campaign.
Bush has by no means embraced the leftist position regarding international law and governance and institutions. In all cases where reliance on such structures would have been catastrophic for us, he has unambiguously rejected them. (Two examples: the Kyoto accords, and the International Criminal Court.)
But there have been a lot of cases