A CNN/GALLUP poll last week found that a majority of the American people--53%--believe that George W. Bush has misled the public for political reasons. The same poll found that 57% believe that John Kerry has changed his mind on issues for political reasons. A separate CNN/Gallup poll showed that Richard Clarke's testimony before the 9/11 commission had immediately become a partisan football (81% of Bush voters didn't believe Clarke; 80% of Kerry voters did). This is pretty depressing.
The electorate seems both cynical and hyperpartisan. The partisanship may be a reflexive reaction to a campaign that has got too hot too soon. The cynicism may be a rational reaction to the Bush Administration's hyperbolic arguments for war in Iraq and to Kerry's distressing tendency to surround issues rather than take positions on them. In neither case is it very healthy, and the general level of disgust and frustration seems likely to get worse. We may have reached the point at which a civil political conversation is no longer possible in this country.
Both Bush and Kerry face a basic political decision: whether to speak to the nation or preach to the choir. The urge to preach may be overwhelming. The number of undecided voters is minuscule, about 5% in most polls. Activists in both parties--Karl Rove and Howard Dean, for example--argue that the surest path to victory is to stoke the base, keep the partisans engaged and angry, and deal with those wimpy undecideds by tearing down the opposition with negative TV ads.
The Republican strategy this year appears to be extreme hardball. Yes, there have been efforts to reach out to constituencies like suburban women (through the Bush education initiative), senior citizens (the Medicare prescription-drug bribe) and Latinos (immigration reform). But the dominant message coming from the White House is, We're right, we don't make mistakes, and anyone who disagrees better watch out. The essential Bush foreign, fiscal and social policies represent nothing less than a new political philosophy: Utopian conservatism, a messianic faith in the power of democracy to transform the Middle East and the power of tax cuts to produce prosperity. This is a radical departure from the mainstream traditions of American diplomacy and fiscal responsibility and should be grounds for a serious debate. But the Administration reacts to almost every challenge--from the Niger uranium flap to Clarke's testimony--as if it were a mortal threat, demonizing its opponents, stonewalling, raising the stakes. After a perfunctory first week of positive ads, the Bush campaign has unleashed a withering negative advertising blitz against Kerry.