Low Stakes Poker
Will the congressional Republicans up for reelection start to distance themselves from the administration? I keep getting this question from reporters.
I have trouble with the premise, frankly. I think all the reporters’ friends dislike Bush so much that they think everyone else must, too. Recent polls (see pollingreport.com) have varying leads for Kerry or Bush, depending on how they treat “likely” voters. (The problem is that people lie: “Yes, I’m going to vote” or “Yes, I voted last time”). But the election isn’t over. The Repubs are going to get a lot of sympathy at their convention. It is going to look like the Bronx Zoo opened its doors and let the wild animals run loose. Interviews with liberal street protesters who want to return mankind to the time before we used gasoline, electricity and possibly even the wheel will make the Repubs look pretty calm and rational.
Besides, I would read the poll numbers differently. Bush has had the worst six months of any Prez since Nixon, and his negatives have not gone up that significantly in the past year, in most states. His problem is that independents have started to swing toward disapproval, though only by a narrow margin. (source)
"Do you approve or disapprove of the way George W. Bush is handling his job as president?"
--Approve: 46 --Disapprove: 45 --Have been living in cave: 9
Approve: 85 DisApp: 11 Cave: 4
Approve: 15 DisApp: 77 Cave: 8
Approve: 41 DisApp: 44 Undecided: 15
Why is Kerry treading water, if Bush is doing such a bad job? The answer is that Mr. “I’m JFK, and I served in a PT…er…Swift Boat” is missing his opportunity, by running like an incumbent. The only message Kerry has is (1) I was in Viet Nam, and (2) contentless optimism ("don't be a hater!"). Kerry is NOT an incumbent. He may screw this up. I have talked to several well-connected Democraticos lately, and they just shake their heads at Kerry’s “strategy.” Sure, it could work, but Kerry should have won this on the merits over the past month.
But, okay, suppose. Suppose Bush really does start to sink in the polls. (It is true that his negatives are very high. Negatives are a measure of the susceptibility of voters to negative advertising, and Bush is obviously susceptible, even for people who haven’t made up their minds. The rule of thumb is that a candidate becomes literally unelectable if their negatives go much above 45%. By many recent measures, Bush is at or near this “threshold of political death”).
The Republican members of Congress can’t bail out. In for a penny, in for a pound. The control of the Oval Office, and control of the Senate, are tightly connected. Bush showed that in 2002, when he pulled a rabbit out of hat and the Repubs gained seats in a race where everyone (yes, including K. Grease) predicted early on they would lose them.
I would say the change is this: The race was Bush's to lose. Now it is Kerry's to lose. But Kerry is not winning it. Inexplicable. Why don't they jump on it? Kerry seems to think that if he just avoids mistakes he will win. I think it is much closer than that, and Kerry is taking a huge risk.
So, for the GOP in House and Senate, it's like a poker hand where no one is betting. They might fold if the stakes went up, but since no one is raising the ante, why not stay in the hand and see what cards turn up? If the other side keeps checking, you might as well stay in the game.