There’s been a lot of joy expressed in liberal circles over the fact that a majority of Americans now disapprove of the Bush’s job performance. That liberals hate Bush more than any GOP president since Nixon (and maybe even him) is old news. Liberals often assumed that a majority of Americans agreed with them and that Kerry’s failure to be like Massachusetts leaders of before and defeat King George was a Kerry failure, or a sign that the Democratic party was hopelessly out of touch with average Americans (nevermind that Kerry’s national, winning margins among voters among all the bottom three economic quintiles was better than all Democrat presidential candidates since the 1970s, (NY Times 11/7/2004 ).
What many folks often miss is that at no time in his first term was Bush’s disapproval rating higher than his approval rating. Gallup, the NYT, rasmussen, Zogby, Pew, etc. all bare this out. In the very rare instances when Bush’s approval rating was below 50%, he still had approval ratings higher than his disapproval ratings.
In addition, according to Pew, on Nov. 2, 51% of Americans approved of the decision to go to war in Iraq, while only 43% disapproved and 6% didn’t know. In short, all Bush had to do to win was convince those majority of voters who agreed with his most important first term decision to stick with him and vote for him. Kerry had to convince all the people who opposed the decision for war, all the people who were unsure, and even some who approved of Bush’ decision for war to vote for him in order to win. According to CNN, 55% of Americans thought the war in Iraq was tied to the war on terror, meaning 4% of voters agreed with Bush’s fundamental arguement for war, but voted for Kerry anyway.
Of course all these numbers have shifted against Bush since November. But the November and pre-November numbers (particularly the numbers on disapproval) make one thing clear: A majority of voters were not in the position of wanting to throw out Bush and were just waiting to see what alternative the Democrats offered. In contrast, a majority of voters in 1932, 1976, 1980, and 1992 had clearly soured on the incumbent by the time the re-election vote rolled around.
Yes the presidential ratings of Carter and Bush Sr. have risen since their defeats, but as Dem pollster Pat Caddell wrote in a memo to Carter in summer 1980: “The American people do not want Jimmy Carter as their president. Not forced to choose a specific candidate, voters by almost 2 to 1 would reject Carter as President,” (from Teddy White’s America in Search of Itself pg. 378).
Even so, polls all throughout the fall of 1980 showed Carter and Reagan in a neck and neck race. Only with the presidential debate a week before election day, and the fact that election day was the one year anniversary of the Iranians seizing Americans hostages, was Reagan able to close the deal and convince that he was an acceptable alternative to Carter, whom a majority of Americans knew they didn’t want anymore.
In contrast, Kerry had to convince Americans he was an acceptable alternative as president, even though a majority of Americans never indicated they were looking for one.
Indeed, according to US News and World Report 52% of Americans trusted Kerry to do a better job fighting terrorism or just as good a job as Bush. According to a Democracy Corps poll at the time of the election, (in Stan Greenberg’s Two Americans) 53% of Americans thought the phrase “strong leader” applied to Kerry. 54% of Americans thought the phrase “will keep us safe” applied to Kerry. Pretty good numbers for a guy who had been slandered by the Swift Boat liars, Bush, Cheney, Fox News, and priests in his own church, and who had never actually been commander-in-chief a day in his life.
Unfortunately, Kerry and the Democrats never convinced a majority of Americans that the above phrases did not apply to Bush. Sure Kerry did not run a mistake free campaign, and yes Americans had questions about Bush’ leadership on the economy, the war, and even on terrorism. But there’s a big difference in questioning Bush’s leadership and actually deciding that the answer to the question is “this guy Bush is no good.”
Today, however, a majority of Americans disapprove of Bush’s and Congress’s job performance. At the same time, as Jon Chait recently said in “The Case Against New Ideas,” Democrats groups and elected Democrats have a plethora of solutions to problems in both domestic and foreign policy. Can Democrats effectively sell their ideas between now and Nov. 2006? What can Dems do (other than waiting for the GOP to screw up) to keep Bush’s disapproval ratings higher than 50%? Any man (or woman) who can answer these questions effectively just might be the best thing to happen to the Dems since The Great Depression, or at the very least since Watergate.