Dubya’s Dilemma

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 4, 2004

February 24, 2004 — THE most recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll, the worst ever for George W. Bush, shows why he is in trouble and what he must do to get out of danger.

With his job-approval at an all-time low of 48 percent and the head-to-head vote against John Kerry deadlocked at 45-45, Bush appears headed for disaster. Since most undecided voters end up voting against the incumbent, he is actually far behind the Massachusetts senator right now.

Why? Not because of his failures, but because of his successes. His victories in the War on Terror have lowered the relevance of this crucial area of his competence.

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Who would Americans trust as a wartime leader? Even in this dismal poll, Bush still beats Kerry by 10 points.

Which party does the best job of fighting terror? The GOP, 52-29. The best for handling the situation in Iraq? Republicans again, 48-34.

But these key areas mean increasingly less to the outcome of the election. Asked what issue is most important in their vote for president, 29 percent cite the economy, 16 percent health care or Medicare, and 10 percent education. Homeland security? Only 8 percent say it’s decisive. Terrorism? Only 6 percent!

Collapsed into a two-way choice between “national security” and “the economy,” voters say by 44-31 that the economy is more important to them. It was not always so: In the Fox News poll of mid-January 2002 (only months after 9/11), national security won out, 52-19.

Only terror and Iraq work for the GOP’s advantage; all the other issues skew the other way. Education? 49-31 for the Democrats. Health care? 52-31 for Kerry’s party.

Even the economy breaks 49-38 for the Democratic Party. The core Bush agenda of cutting taxes? Voters split, with 42 percent trusting Republicans and 41 percent believing in the Democratic alternative.

So the key is for Bush to heighten the saliency of terrorism as an issue.

After all, Americans are wrong to see terrorism as a fourth-place issue. Education or the economy or health care won’t knock down buildings and kill 3,000 people. Terrorism will. It is the result of Bush’s vigilance that we are all fat and happy enough to see optional issues as more important than the national preservation that terrorism places at risk.

Back in early January, when we were all breathing a sigh of relief after the terror alert was lowered from “orange” and flights were no longer being turned away at American airports, Bush’s job approval peaked at 58 percent. But as we’ve gone back to taking safety for granted, it has slipped 10 points.

Many administration advisers are, no doubt, echoing what strategist Bob Teeter told me in 1988 when I suggested that Bush Sr. focus on the need to improve the economy as he ran against Mike Dukakis. “The more we talk about the economy, the more we lower our ratings. People come to believe that the economy is bad when we say it is,” he said. His words rang in my ears when I worked to switch Bill Clinton from traditional Democratic pessimism to a generic incumbent optimism about the economy in 1996.

But now Bush must do the opposite. The more Americans think he has succeeded in mitigating the terrorist threat, the more they vote for Kerry. The more they feel that terrorism is still at our doorstep – as it is – the more they back Bush as the better wartime leader.

The traditional incumbent recipe of claiming success backfires here. Bush must make clear to us all the threats that remain, not try to take credit for the end of the terror danger. He must make the most of what he has yet to achieve, rather than try to sell his successes.

Success extinguishes his mandate. Tasks that remain before us rekindle it.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Off With Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks, and Obstructionists in American Politics, Media and Business. Copyright 2004 Dick Morris, All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. www.caglecartoons.com Call Cari Dawson Bartley at (800) 696 7561 or e-mail: cari@cagle.com email for Dick Morris is dmredding@aol.com

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