- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed King used to tell Massachusetts voters: “Open your matchbook covers and write this on the back: 1) cut taxes; 2) cut spending; 3) kill killers.” Mr. King’s 1978 victory over incumbent Michael Dukakis ranks as one of the best examples of simple but powerful political messaging.

Rudy Giuliani’s “crime, crack and corruption” against Mayor David Dinkins was another classic political message that worked. And, the Clinton team’s “It’s the economy, stupid” is yet another example of an effective translation of policy into politics. While their messages were different, these three candidates shared one political characteristic. Each had an instinct for sensing public opinion on defining issues; and their messages reflected that popular consensus.

A similar defining issue is at work in the presidential election, and President Bush owns it: “America is under attack.” Only Joe Lieberman grasps the critical importance of this issue; and, ironically, it is his principled invocation of it on the campaign trail that is dimming his chances of winning over the liberals who control his party.

It’s what I call the McGovern factor,”and it’s the dilemma facing Mr. Lieberman and the rest of the Democrat field. The party’s powerful liberal base, which chooses its presidential nominee, is hugely out of step with the rest of the country to a degree not seen since 1972, when the extreme leftists of the party’s antiwar wing took control.

While the Watergate backlash gave the Democrats the White House in 1976, the real recovery from the party’s extreme leftward lurch actually took closer to 20 years with the nomination of “centrist” Bill Clinton. Apparently, they have learned little from the experience.

In a fascinating pre-Iraq war comparison on attitudes of swing voters and self-identified Democratic primary voters, pollster Bill McInturff found a huge disconnect.

When asked to identify Mr. Bush’s reasons for war in Iraq, 58 percent of base Democrats said the fight was over oil; 69 percent of swing voters disagreed. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats said it was for revenge; 71 percent of swing voters disagreed. Core Democrats by 61 percent and 64 percent margins, respectively, said the war was an attempt to draw attention away from the failure to capture bin Laden and the economy. Swing voters believed just the opposite by margins of 73 percent and 70 percent.

Clearly, independent voters, who represent the critical voting bloc in presidential elections, overwhelmingly rejected these claims.

Postwar, it hasn’t gotten any better for the Democrats. Pollster David Winston asked voters in his recent New Models Survey whether the Democrats’ message made them more or less favorable to Senate Democrats. Core Democrats, as expected, had a 75-7 favorable reaction to the negative messages streaming from Minority Leader Tom Daschle. But independents once again parted company, with 49 percent reacting unfavorably to the national Democratic message, while only 33 percent had a favorable response.

As John Kerry slams Mr. Bush while calling for “regime change,” and Bob Graham accuses him of going to war with Iraq “to settle old scores” and Howard Dean just goes on the attack (he doesn’t seem to need a reason), they are exhibiting the same tin ear that has plagued past Democratic nominees.

Remember Mr. McGovern’s anti-war “Come Home America” or Walter Mondale’s promise to increase taxes or Mr. Gore’s class-warfare rhetoric? As the Democratic primary heats up, the presidential hopefuls have been hit hard by the McGovern factor, struggling to win over virulently anti-Bush Democrats without driving up their negatives to a point where a general election victory is made impossible.

Undaunted by the attacks, President Bush blends economic security, homeland security and personal security into his daily messages, and by all recent polls, voters heartily approve.

Even 20,000 members of organized labor, most who probably call themselves Democrats, marched in support of the war last month in New York, sporting signs like “We gave peace a chance. We got 9/11.”

The recent attacks in Israel, Morocco and Saudi Arabia only serve to underscore the president’s message.

Two weeks ago, most of the major and minor presidential hopefuls appeared before a group of Democrat activists in Des Moines, home of the important Iowa caucuses. Democrat pollster Celinda Lake tested the reactions of 30 Iowa Democrats to the candidates. And who did Iowa Democrats like best? The “vegan,” antiwar candidate Dennis Kucinich, who bankrupted Cleveland and proposed the creation of a “U.S. Department of Peace.” Second place went to Al Sharpton. Enough said.

Both Democrat and Republican polls show a growing disconnect between the Democrat Party and mainstream American views, due in large part to the harsh, personal, negative campaign rhetoric that has become the staple of Democratic leaders and contenders.

The good news for President Bush and Republicans is that “loony left” presidential candidates like Messrs. Kucinich, Sharpton and Dean will continue to put leftward pressure on candidates, further strengthening the liberal grip on their party’s process and inevitably weakening its chances to beat Mr. Bush.

Richard N. Bond is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee.

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