What is the dark secret of this election? OK, there is more than one dark secret. We'll get to the others later. For now I want to focus on the fact that both political parties will each benefit in this election, in different ways, from bad news. The Democrats would benefit from continuing turmoil in Iraq. The Republicans would benefit from a terrorist attack on the United States.
Neither party, of course, wants either outcome. But victory in November will be determined by bad news not good news.
This is not the usual pattern in American politics. Ordinarily, the party in power wants people to think that they never had it so good (Truman, 1948) and that if you reward their party with another term there will be a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage (Hoover, 1928). That's why Ronald Reagan ran the feel-good, love is in the air, everything's great campaign of 1984. In short, the incumbent has a stake in good news.
Parties out of power, in contrast, emphasize the negative. Thus, while Reagan in 1984 was broadcasting his Morning in America commercials, Walter Mondale was saying he was going to have raise your taxes to pay for Reagan's deficits.
This year the Bush administration has an incentive to emphasize the positive when discussing the economy, which indeed is doing better now than it was a year or two years ago. But with a war on the big issue this year is not the economy it's the war. And the war is going badly thus far.
Bush has been trying to make the case that the war is going well, but that's not going over, of course, despite the efforts of the White House spin machine, which finds itself stuck on the "Heavy Soil" cycle.
That has left the White House with little option but to emphasize the threat posed to America by a terrorist attack. No one in the White House wants a terrorist attack, of course. But they haven't been reticent about playing on our fears of an attack. That seems to have been what was behind the Ashcroft fear-mongering the other day, which we now know was based on the threats made by an obscure group with little credibility (according to NBC Nightly News 5-28-04). Forget Morning in America. The forecast is for clouds, and storms, and lightning and thunder.
Were there an actual attack, Bush would almost certainly benefit. He appears tough. The public thinks highly of his war on terrorism. Voters almost always rally around a president in a crisis.
The Democrats could inoculate themselves from the political effects of an attack. But they haven't done so, thus far. (A sound strategy would be to emphasize repeatedly that the Iraq War has distracted us from the war on terrorism, but only Richard Clarke has been making that case in a sustained way and that's not sufficient. John Kerry needs to be making that case.)
While the Republicans play on our fears of an attack, the Democrats are emphasizing how badly the war in Iraq is going. This is a sound strategy. Americans want victories. When the news indicates that the wars their presidents have led them into are going badly, voters punish their presidents, as the voters did in 1952 when the Korean War stalemated and public support for Harry Truman dropped to 23 percent and in 1968 when the Vietnam War seemed to stall and collapse and support for LBJ declined and he dropped out of the race.
With the Republicans warning about new attacks and the Democrats wailing about the war in Iraq, the campaign of 2004 promises to be a god-awful and depressing, nightmare.
Sick of politics already? Just wait. It will only get worse.
There is one bright upside to all of this. About half the country will wake up the morning after the election and feel hopeful about the future of our country. All campaign long you can pray and hope that's going to be you.