“Elections Are Crux Of GOP’s Strategy”

That’s the seemingly self-evident title of the Washington Post’s analysis of the Bush administration’s political position, and preview of November’s elections.

On reflection, though, the title may not be as silly as it sounds. One would think that electoral victory is the chief, if not sole, object of any political party. Yet it sometimes seems as if the Democrats are pursuing some other agenda, as they dominate Hollywood, Washington and New York, but generally lose most of the rest of America.

That’s the fear that underlines the Post’s analysis: that those pesky Republicans will somehow be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat and stymie the paper’s beloved Democrats once again. Which is quite likely to happen, I think. The key for the Republicans is that they get to run against Democrats:

Perhaps the most important element of the emerging strategy will be to “move from a referendum to a choice,” as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman put it. Instead of a verdict on Bush, Republicans want to frame the election as a contest with Democrats, confident that voters unhappy with the president will find the opposition even more distasteful.

“We’re moving from a period where the public looks at things and says thumbs-up or thumbs-down, to a time when they have a choice between one side or the other,” Mehlman said.

The administration’s strategy, as outlined by the Post, is to run mostly on three issues: tax cuts, immigration and national security. The administration is urging Republicans not to run away from Iraq, but rather to emphasize the conflict as a key national security issue:

The Rove-Taylor view is that one-third of Americans agree with liberal Democrats calling for immediate withdrawal and another third support staying the course. The middle third wants a new strategy, but would be leery of pulling out and leaving behind a volatile Iraq, a position strategists believe leaves those voters open to persuasion.

I think that’s right. The public’s negative view of Iraq is driven mostly by biased press coverage, not the realities on the ground. If Republican candidates run away from the issue, the negative perceptions won’t be challenged. If they address Iraq straightforwardly and optimistically, they can erode the superficial negativity on which Democrats rely.

The Post also notes that the administration is spoiling for a fight with Congressional Democrats over issues like judicial nominations and the nomination of Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA director. Right once again. The Democrats have a real problem on subjects like the Hayden nomination. Because almost all of the press is loyal to them, they can easily generate negative headlines and misleading (or outright false) stories implying that the NSA programs, for example, are illegal or dangerous to civil liberties. But then comes the hard part: they have to take a position. Do they really want to go on record as saying that the NSA shouldn’t be spying on al Qaeda, and doing its best to intercept its communications? No, they don’t. So we have the weird spectacle of DNC Chairman Howard Dean sending out emails denouncing Hayden and demanding that his nomination be rejected, while Senate Democrats are pretty uniformly praising him and saying that he will be confirmed easily. Once again, the Republicans can take comfort from the fact that they don’t run for election against newspaper headlines; they run against Democrats.

My prediction: come November, the Democrats will once again be wondering how they let an opportunity that seemed so golden slip away.

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