To all those out there who have been yelling loud and clear over the past week about the lack of any real difference between the Dems and their Republican opponents, I have to ask, "Have you been watching the early presidential debates?"
A cursory glimpse at the debate topics and candidate positions reveals stark differences between the two major parties. The Democrats are addressing the issues confronting the 21st century American family - healthcare, jobs, education. Meanwhile, the Republicans rally their base by throwing away the Geneva Conventions, creating a false link between Saddam and al Qaeda and promising a 'stay the course' policy in Iraq.
Has the chasm between Democrats and Republicans grown so wide that building a bridge across the Red/Blue divide has become a Herculean task? Why are there two national conversations going on as we choose our next president?
But, perhaps most importantly, by dismissing the bloodlust in the GOP audiences are we overlooking the biggest obstacle to capturing the White House in 2008?
EJ Dionne has an interesting opinion piece today discussing the "parallel universes" our nominating battles appear to be operating in during the campaign's early stages.
Dionne discusses the findings from an April 2007 Pew Research Center poll illustrating the diverging priorities of the Democratic and Republican bases.
While Iraq is the top priority for partisans on both sides (38% of Dems, 31% of GOPers), the Republicans remain far more supportive of a 'stay the course' approach, than the Dems (I don't think this will come as news to anyone here!) Even more profound is the partisan divide revealed in the 60% of those surveyed who did not think that Iraq was the issue of our time.
Education was most important for 12 percent of Democrats and only 5 percent of Republicans; abortion for 8 percent of Republicans and just 1 percent of Democrats; immigration for 12 percent of Republicans and 1 percent of Democrats.
Consolidating these results dramatizes how different Democraticland is from Republicanland: 42 percent of Democrats listed one of three big domestic issues (the economy, health care and education) compared with only 20 percent of Republicans. The hot-button issues of immigration and abortion were overwhelmingly Republican concerns (20 percent to 2 percent).
With Terrorism/Security named by 17% of Republicans (making it #2 on the GOP list) and only 5% of Democrats, it is little wonder Giuliani is cheered when he advocates torture as American policy. With the GOP base angry over immigration, the formerly straight talking McCain frequently appears tongue-tied over the hot button issue. And much has been made about Romney's dramatic lurch to the right - on practically every issue -to placate the demands of the Republican primary voter.
Eighteen months before the nation picks its next president, most experts believe the Democrats have a clear advantage. Conventional wisdom forecasts the presidential race as the "Democrats to lose" - and predicts further expansion of the slim Democratic majorities in both houses. With an electorate angry about Iraq, Bush administration incompetence, and rapidly rising healthcare and energy costs, how can we lose?
If the Bush Administration and their spinmeisters (enabled by a lazy and complicit MSM) can once again manipulate the security/terrorist issue the GOP has a chance to retain their hold on the White House.
It is the security issue - and its power to alter elections - that continues to be the sword of Damocles hanging over the heads of all the Democratic candidates. The divergent atmospheres at the debates illustrate the challenging path ahead. In fact, the road has already been quite bumpy.
Democrats - burned twice at the polls before voters tired of the Rovian fear tactics and rejected Republican leadership in 2006 - remain leery of looking 'soft on defense.' As a result, our candidates dance around the Iraq war votes. It explains why John Edwards is attacked as naive and dangerous when he calls the "War on Terror" a politically inspired doctrine designed to advance GOP candidates.
Terrorism has scrambled the political strategy and calculus on the Republican side as well. The issues dominance within the GOP rank and file explains Rudys perch at the top of the heap of uninspiring candidates. His perceived strength on terrorism trumps his unorthodoxy on the conservative social issues. And, it is what allows Giuliani to get away with making claims that a Democratic victory will place America at greater risk to future terrorist attacks.
How many Americans are receptive to this argument? Well, there is some good news. According to most recent polls I could find, Congressional Democrats and the Bush Administration have traded places in the public's mind, with more Americans now trusting the Democrats to be more effective in combating terrorism. From the ABC News/Washington Post polling (more can be found at pollingreport.com):
"Who do you trust to do a better job handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism: Bush or the Democrats in Congress?" Options rotated. Half sample.
It's important to recognize this switch as a recent phenomenon (occuring in late 2006 after years of GOP dominance on this question). And, perhaps most importantly for the current presidential election, these numbers may reveal much more about the American public's rejection of the Bush administration than a tectonic shift toward the Democrats on this issue. Once Bush is removed from the equation, the GOP is likely to regain some of its lost stature. (Whether it deserves it or not is an entirely separate question).
Will voters step into the voting booth in November 2008 receptive to Giuliani's argument and opt to vote for a Republican despite the years of overhwelming incompetence, pervasive corruption, and unjustifiable war?
The answer is simply unknowable. But, history - and human nature - is on their side.
The GOP strategists understand FEAR as a powerful motivator. They've used it effectively in the past - and show every indication they're planning on relying on tactics once again.
And, while bloodthirsty revenge may not appeal to the liberal blogosphere, it is a tried and true strategy in American politics. By failing to understand this simple reality, we risk opening the door to a successful GOP campaign based on fear and ignorance.
We must continue educating the American public about how the Bush Administration's policies have made Americans LESS SAFE than before. We must continue hammering away at the folly of the Iraq War, the lack of a Saddam-al Qaeda connection, and the diminished global stature of the US, to name a few. It is the only way to innoculate our nominee (and other candidates) from the soft on terror label.
I'll be watching next week's debates concerned that our parallel universes are dangerous for the eventual Democratic nominee.