Man Without Qualities

Thursday, January 22, 2004


The New York Times and the Washington Post both suggest that President Bush received a bounce from the capture of Saddam Hussein that has now largely dissipated. And, of course, many commenters believe that Senator Kerry (and maybe Edwards) received a big bounce from the Iowa results - especially for Kerry in New Hampshire.

I am not convinced of any of it.

It's not that I deny that the President is doing worse in his polls compared to the immediate post-Saddam- capture numbers (at least in polls like the NYT's poll with sampling techniquies apt to be skewed against him), nor do I deny that Senator Kerry is doing better in his polls relative to other Democrats in the race.

It's the causation of these things.

With respect to Saddam's capture: It has been fairly widely and (I believe) correctly observed that since and largely as a result of Saddam's capture a great many voters (Democratic and others) have reduced their evaluation of the significance of the entire Iraq war and occupation. Indeed, that reduction by Democratic voters is widely believed to be a substantial (but, of course, not the only) factor in the recent loss of altitude experienced by both Howard Dean and Wesley Clark. In other words, the public appears not to be treating Saddam's capture as of passing significance. If anything, there are signs that the public - and not just the Democratic public - is ascribing too much long term and profound significance to that capture.

It being the case that the public appears to have lodged the Saddam capture in its collective mind as an important and priority-shifting development, I think - unlike the Times and Post - that it is highly unlikely that the public has ceased to ascribe to the President the long term credit for that capture. Instead, as I have noted in a prior post, I believe the capture of Saddam Hussein is viewed by the broad public the removal of a continuing drag on the public's evaluation of the President's performance. The recent developments in the Democratic contest and current polling data seem to support that conclusion. To be fair to the Times and Post, their articles do not expressly assert the causal connections, but those connections are clearly intended to be drawn as conclusions by the reader. And, I believe, those conclusions are wrong.

As I noted in the post immediately below, what in my view is likely happening is that political news coverage has been recently dominated by reporting of the Democratic selection process - which means that the Democratic arguments have been getting a lot of play - and the polls are reflecting that process.

With respect to Senator Kerry and Edwards: I detect little sign that the public - Democratic or otherwise - have actually raised their estimations of Senators Kerry or Edwards. Instead, it appears that for very different reasons Iowa caucus members re-evaluated sharply downward their estimates of both Dean and Gephardt as those caucuses approached. The effect was that, relative to those two, Senators Kerry and Edwards looked the better choices. A caucus is after all, in the final vote, a zero-sum game. That there appears to have been no (or very little) bounce for Edwards in the New Hampshire polling is further evidence that Democratic voters are not raising their estimation of him - despite media reports that Senator Edwards "positive message of hope and optimism" is getting through to more people. Instead, Senator Kerry is occupying a larger share of New Hampshire territory as a favorite son now that the other favorite son, Howard Dean, is contracting and Wesley Clark may be receding with the public's perception of Iraq's significance and in accordance with his own increasingly odd pronouncements (Kerry's Vietnam heroism was no big deal. Gay marriage is A-OK., etc., etc.). Clark's position in all this is, however, more complicated since he is also arguably picking up New Hampshire supporters who are departing from Dean - even as the territory claimed by both Dean and Clark together shrinks. In fact, because Senator Kerry is a favorite son from a neighboring state, New Hampshire has only down-side potential - and no substantial up-side potential - for Senator Kerry.

One further point: It has been said that Mr. Gephardt commenced his barrage of attack ads against Dr. Dean on the advice of Bill Clinton. Those attack ads resulted in Dr. Dean upping his attacks on Mr. Gephardt. The net effect is that they both shrank and lost, while Senators Kerry and Dean looked better and better. Gephardt is now out of the race entirely and Dean may be mortally wounded.

Nice work by Mr. Clinton in resolving those gosh darned competing goals, wasn't it? I wonder if all the Democratic contenders are still seeking Slick Willie's advice?


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