The range of variables affecting voters' final decisions, propelled by a strong leftward news dynamic, has maintained a longer-than-normal fluidity in the polls.
In an election-year September, it isn't unheard of for one party to lose 13 points of a 16-point lead, as the Democrats did. But in mid-October, what are we to make of a CNN poll giving Democrats a 21-point lead released the same day as a FOX News poll saying the Democrats' lead is only 9?
Today there are only two certainties: first, the news dynamic is bad for Republicans; and second, the data the polls have given us are still soft. They don't yet — and for another week or more won't — reflect voters' final decisions or predict accurately voter turnout. That fact may return Michael DeWine and Jim Talent to the Senate next year, and prevent Nancy Pelosi from taking the Speaker's gavel.
Republicans need to better understand and act on the signals voters are sending. Vice President Dick Cheney — who to the 527 Media personifies everything wrong with the Bush White House — is being received like a rock star on campaign stops (according to one New York Times report.) In Virginia, a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage is being supported by about 53 percent of Virginia voters and, as the Washington Post reports mournfully, no state has yet rejected such a ban. And if viewer ratings have the value political polls do, where CBS News now stands people may soon be able to view the Couric Crater. Those small facts, and others like them, add up to an opportunity in the next week or ten days for Republicans to regain the upper hand.
This is the moment of truth for President Bush and the Republican National Committee. Will they do what it takes to change the news dynamic, to focus the nation on their structural strengths and the Democrats' corresponding weaknesses?
The news dynamic — the momentum of the media herd — has focused on the bad news from Iraq, but not what the Democrats would do (regarding Iraq or anything else) if they take control of Congress. Why don't the media ask the tough questions, calling irresponsible those who seek power but refuse to say what they'll do when they get it? Because many among the 527 Media think the Democrats have already won and won't rock their boat. But they remember 2004, and will publish a few more October surprises timed to deter a Republican comeback. The news dynamic will serve them up as part of the continuing, "Iraq is a disaster, Bush is incompetent" narrative. To turn the media herd, Republicans have to disrupt the narrative.
There are three keys to disrupting the narrative and turning the herd: Iraq, the Democrats and the media themselves.
The 527 Media have turned Iraq into a choice between "staying the course" and an undefined Democrat alternative. The Democrats insist they aren't going to cut and run, but what they say they will do can only be described as "trim and trot." No Democrat has, since 9-11, described a plan to win the war against terrorist nations. All they have said — through John Murtha, Carl Levin and Charlie Rangel — is that they'd move American troops out of Iraq and then cut funding for military aid to the Iraqis. Do Americans want to trim and trot, and who do they trust to face off with Kim and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Democrats want everyone to believe that 2006 is another 1994 when Republican reformers swept in on a wave of anti-incumbent sentiment. Though this year isn't 1994: it could be 1974. Inflamed by Watergate, weary of the Vietnam War, voters installed a Democratic congress that cut off funding to the South Vietnamese. That left our allies — who had been fighting well — vulnerable to the North Vietnamese attack that the funding cut invited. Republicans need to tell the truth about the Democrats: they have to say that the Democrats will do to Baghdad what they did to Saigon. They should fight the "who lost the Vietnam War" issue all over again.
The Republicans in 1994 came in with Gingrich's "Contract with America" to fix what was broken in Washington. The 2006 Democrats aren't reformers. They propose nothing more than rolling back everything President Bush has done. They are liberals, and everything they do will be in pursuit of a hard-core liberal agenda that will please only the Ned Lamont fringe who control their party. Republicans need to hammer home the fact that the Democrats are liberals. And the media are the liberals are the Democrats.
Monday night's CBS Evening News presented a "news" story that for an instant I thought was one of the anti-media campaign commercials I've said the Republicans should run. To anyone not suffering Bush Derangement Syndrome, it was beyond parody. Correspondent Anthony Mason informed us earnestly that there were concerns that falling gasoline prices were the result of Bush Administration manipulation because they were happening before the election. His only sources were the hyperlib websites, DailyKos and the Huffington Post. Mason said that concerns of price manipulation arose because they happened at the same time as the president's poll numbers continued to be held down by news about Iraq.
This was a contrived story that wouldn't pass the desk of a junior city editor at a small town paper. If CBS News wants to share the fate of Air America, that's a problem for its shareholders in the first quarter of 2007. But between now and November 7, it's the Republicans' problem. It's time for the president to take the matter into his own hands. Mr. Bush, by making a national speech and by directing the RNC to put specific ads on television and in newspapers, can make sure this election doesn't go the way the media and the Democrats plan.
Republicans are relying on their ground game: the voter turnout machinery that proved effective in 2000 and 2004. But they should look again at its failures since then, especially the 2005 Virginia gubernatorial race and conclude they can't risk standing pat with the ground game. The air game has to complement it. It's too late to do all of what I've described here before, but there is time for enough to make a critical difference this year. I know the president and RNC Chairman Ken Mehlman get a lot of advice from a lot of pundits, pols and consultants. But unconventional advice, even from curmudgeonly columnists, can be valuable. It's worth saying one last time: the Republicans need to be buying time and space for a nationally-oriented series of print and television ads that:
— Take on the 527 Media, poking fun at them but showing how they're contriving stories and making campaign commercials for Democrats, instead of producing the news;
— Remind the voters why voting for any Democratic senate candidate is a vote for liberal control of the Senate agenda, for every liberal policy from abortion to gay marriage, for ACLU-approved judges, and against NSA terrorist surveillance and ballistic missile defense. Put pictures of the liberal would-be committee chairman on the screen. Nationalize the election, and make liberals the issue;
— Tell America — as Progress for America has — that we are safer at home because we are fighting terrorists abroad. It's football season: Americans understand that the best defense is a good offense.
These ads — low production cost, short production time — can be made and released in time for the next installment of Monday Night Football. If they ran for a couple of weeks before the election, coupled with a good presidential speech or two, they could make the difference between President Bush and Lame Duck Dubya.
Go to an Indiana courthouse in a closely-contested district, Mr. President. Make a tough but funny speech taking on the media, telling the truth about the liberals who want to change America into something only a European could comfortably call home. Tell the truth about the media's distortions of the news. The Sulzbergers and Downey's will scream. And the louder they do, the better off you and your party will be in the next two years. Go for it, Mr. President.