Beating something with nothing

For the umpteenth time, the Democrats have modified their strategy with respect to attacking President Bush. The approach now is to constantly accuse him of “incompetence.” So instead of attacking Bush’s policies, the Dems are attacking his ability to execute them.

At one level this approach makes sense because the things Bush is trying to do right now are not unpopular. There is no national consensus in favor of replacing current policy in Iraq with either an immediate withdrawal or a phased withdrawal based on a timetable that disregards conditions on the ground. There is no consensus in favor of replacing the current NSA surveillance program with a program that gives Congress more say or that ends warrantless NSA intercepts. And with the economy producing vast numbers of new jobs and high growth rates, there is no consensus in favor of changing our economic policies.

On the other hand, how much is to be gained by focusing, Micheal Dukakis-like, on Bush’s competence (or lack thereof) instead of his ideology. This approach has little value when it comes to 2008 because Bush will not be running then. Even if Bush is seen as incompetent, this perception will have no bearing on how the public views Senator McCain or Senator Allen, for example.

By 2008, of course, the Dems will have adopted a new theme — their focus is on winning congressional majorities this year. But it’s not clear how effective attacking Bush’s competence will be for that purpose. Suppose Bush didn’t handle Hurricane Katrina well and/or didn’t do enough “planning” in Iraq. Is that a reason for Maryland voters to prefer Benjamin Cardin to Michael Steele?

This is not to deny that an unpopular president can be an asset to the opposition party in an off-year. Republicans need to worry, in particular, about the demoralization of their base. But having Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi repeatedly call President Bush “incompetent” (or even “incredibly incompetent”) won’t demoralize the Republican base.

The biggest virtue of the competency meme is that it enables the Democrats to avoid talking about what they believe. The party apparently has realized that everytime it focuses the discussion on itself and its principles, it loses momentum. Without much hope of formulating a winning program such as the Contract with America, the Democrats hope to prove that they can beat something with nothing. It may well be this time they can. If they can maintain the discipline to stick with nothing.

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