- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

This week’s Major League Baseball All Star game included the always entertaining Home Run Derby, featuring well-known power hitters smacking the long ball. In previous years, sluggers like Sammy Sosa might pull out the “corked bat” to please the fans by giving their hitting a little more oomph.

In American presidential politics, the Democratic candidates are swinging for the fences on the critical issues of leadership and trust — criticizing President Bush on a number of issues related to pre- and post-Iraq war planning. Yet, according to the results of the recent American Survey, these attempts are striking out with voters. Unfortunately for the Democrats, there are no corked bats in American politics.

First, the Democrats are struggling to gain traction on issues. Even though respondents continue to indicate that “jobs and the economy” is their most important issue, the president continues to overwhelm potential rivals (see chart). Moreover, that support is firming up. We asked who voters think will win, and for the first time the president crested 50 percent (Bush — 54 percent, Democratic nominee — 31 percent). That trend has been solid for a while now and suggests to us that the Democrats (in all places, not just those campaigning) are having a difficult time either damaging the president or, more importantly, explaining how they might do things better.

Second, voters value trust and leadership. A significant fraction of the problem for the Democratic candidates is that they are relatively unknown. It is challenging to garner trust and project leadership when people don’t even know you. Right now, we think the president has a commanding advantage in both those areas. The question is whether or not his advantage can endure the growing media and Democratic attacks on the administration’s handling of pre-war intelligence.

The challenge for the Democrats is to convince the voters that their most basic assumption about the president — that he is an honorable person — is fundamentally wrong. That will be difficult enough to achieve. At the same time, they need to give the voters a sense that their candidate is at least as trustworthy and competent as Mr. Bush. This road map is not clear — at least, not yet.

Third, the final fundamental problem faced by the Democrats is their most persistent and perplexing; namely, the pervasive nationalism gap. The most stunning result of July’s survey is that almost half of the respondents were willing to answer that the President (at 46 percent) was “more patriotic” than Kerry (8 percent), Lieberman (6 percent), or Gephardt (7 percent). Leaving aside the question of what values were contained inside the idea of “more patriotic,” it was amazing that so many people actually answered the question — only a third either said they didn’t know or refused. Answering the question suggests that its construct is legitimate, that a candidate’s patriotism is subject to qualification, gradation, and comparison.

This has significant implications for the election. Nationalism (patriotism) has been one of the most powerful political forces in America for more than 200 years. But the current crop of Democrats clearly has some way to go before it is at parity with Mr. Bush on this important fundamental. At a time when Americans everywhere are literally in the crosshairs, second place in the patriotism contest is a bad place to be. Moreover, it suggests the Democrats are going to have a tough time finding competitive parity in national security, likely to be the signature issue of the campaign.

The July edition of The American Survey was conducted July 9-11, nationwide among 600 registered voters; its margin of error is plus/minus 4.0 percent.

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