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February 02, 2004

Fool Me Twice?

Come November, the outcome of the 2004 presidential election will probably depend on how voters answer this question:

Which is the greater danger to the United States over the next few years, Islamic Terrorism or a 7 trillion dollar budget deficit?

The presumptive (i.e. not Joe Lieberman) Democratic nominees would appear to have the weaker policy when it comes to addressing Islamic terrorism, while George Bush appears weaker when it comes to the question of the budget. Historically both sides of the question should favor the Republicans, but George Bush has proven himself quite as capable of creating torrents of red ink as any tax and spend liberal, and the Democrats can still claim to be the party that balanced the budget when last in power.

The conventional wisdom on foreign policy is that it while doesn't win any elections, it can lose them. On the deficit, the thinking is that it is too abstract an issue for voters to base a ballot decision on. "Deficits don't matter" in other words.

A Bush campaign emphasis on foreign policy will trump a Democratic emphasis on the deficit, so the thinking goes, because foreign policy became personal for Americans on the morning of Sept. 11th, 2001. But, since no event in the War on Terror since that morning has affected Americans in the same way, the Bush Administration is in an unenviable position. If there are no domestic terrorist attacks in the coming months, then the war might increasingly be seen as won, reducing the importance foreign policy in public debate and dooming Bush to the fate suffered by Winston Churchill in the waning days of WWII. If there is a successful attack, then the administration, after years of preparation and millions of dollars, would have conspicuously failed at protecting the American people.

Politically, the Bush administration must walk a middle path between the two extremes, constantly reminding the public of the danger of attacks while simultaneously preventing them. The constantly changing alert colors and flight cancellations, whether or not they are intended for such a purpose, nonetheless serve it admirably. Foreign policy is the Bush administration's greatest strength when it comes to cajoling the mass of American voters--one can expect his team to hammer on that idea between now and November.

Such a strategy presumes that the deficit issue remains as nebulous in this election has it has in those past. But what if the deficit isn't the abstract issue it has been in the past? No only do Americans remember the salad days of the Clinton Administration, when the budget was balanced and times were good, many of them now, thanks to near-record levels of debt and a still sluggish, have a personal and bitter experience with the downside of running a deficit, something John Edwards has picked up on.

Besides, other subjects in the Edwards speech feel weighty to his audience. Take bankruptcy and personal finance, for example. Families that were once well off, Edwards announces, "are saving nothing. They're going into debt. The problem that creates is, if they have a serious illness, or a layoff, or some kind of financial problem, they go right off a cliff." Here Edwards is being more daring. Bankruptcy remains a kind of social taboo in America, far more prevalent than you'd know from listening to television pundits.

That's why you can always hear the crowd's approval when Edwards says he wants to crack down on "predatory lenders, payday lenders, and these credit cards companies that are fleecing the American people, every single day." He continues: "I know that some of you have seen these ads. Don't you love these? ZERO PERCENT introductory offer. Right. How long does that last? And then the rate goes to 18, 19 percent. We can ban these kinds of abuses." The senator may not be revealing his inner policy wonk, but talk about television ads is a language voters understand.

Laboring under a debt load may not engender the same sharp pain that the World Trade Center attacks did, but it is a chronic, ever-present burden, one that will stay fresh on millions of voterís minds even as September 11th fades into memory. Attacking Big Business in general might not work out well for the Democrats, but attacking a thoroughly unloved Big Business in particular could pay off handsomely. I myself would love to see Capitol One and all its minions thrown alive into a boiling lake of lava, and I haven't owed them money for nearly a decade.

The election is still months away, but the question above presents George Bush and his campaign with a problem, for while it is still possible for the Democrat party to toughen up its stance on the question of terrorism, the administration has maneuvered itself into a corner on the deficit issue. When one's own party starts to break ranks on the spending issue, during an election year, no less, then one's political position is untenable. Were this a year ago Bush & Co. could have addressed the issue--now, with the next budget already proposed, it is probably too late.

If in coming years Bush's Medicare package is seen as the equivalent of his father's broken pledge of "No New Taxes," he will have no one to blame but himself.

Posted by Bigwig at February 2, 2004 01:55 PM | TrackBack
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