Video: Analyzing the primary election results

By Political Director
updated 9/14/2006 6:44:26 PM ET 2006-09-14T22:44:26
ON THE TRAIL

If it wasn't clear last week, it became crystal clear Monday night that the 2006 midterm elections could be boiled down to a phrase made famous by "gonzo" journalist Hunter S. Thompson. The Republicans are using "fear" to motivate their voters and the Democrats are employing a message of "loathing" to fire up their base.

President Bush succinctly reinforced the GOP message in his speech to the nation on Monday when he declared: "The safety of America depends on the outcome of the battle in the streets of Baghdad."

Digest that sentence for a moment.

While the idea that Iraq is central to the war on terror is not a new message out of this White House, Bush has never been more direct.

Or at least he hasn't been that direct since the fall of 2004.

The obstacle facing the president and his party is whether they can persuade voters to view the Iraq war and the war on terror as a single issue by November. Will voters buy it this time? Are voters as cynical as the press?

Polls indicate that the country is divided on the definition of the Iraq war, but they aren't divided on how the effort is going there. A strong majority believes it's going badly.

Bush and the Republicans are in a tight spot right now, because even if voters buy into the White House's line that Iraq is part of the war on terror, will things magically look better on the ground in Baghdad? Will Iraq be any further away from a civil war?

The potential unintended consequence of the White House's insistence that the two battles are one in the same is that the public could start losing confidence in the Bush administration's ability to handle terrorism. What if Iraq becomes the lens through which voters view the war on terror? Is that something the White House or Republicans running for re-election in 2006 really want?

If Americans lose faith in the administration's ability to handle terrorism, Bush's job-approval rating could be headed far lower than the 38 percent it's been hovering around lately.

The Bush White House may eventually see the long-term benefit of separating the war on terrorism and Iraq, but it won't happen before Election Day.

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As for whether it's a good electoral strategy, history says yes. In fact, current polling suggests that the "terrorism" issue might be the most effective get-out-the-vote tool in the GOP's arsenal. But the White House is going to have a difficult time convincing House Republicans running for re-election in states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Connecticut that this is a sound strategy.

Despite the focus on immigration and taxes earlier in the cycle, terrorism seems to be the most important issue to Republicans. Preliminary WH 2008 GOP primary ballot tests offer some evidence of that, as the best-performing candidate in the field is the one whose identity is synonymous with fighting terrorism -- former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

Still, strategists tasked with trying to win in this environment have to be relieved the president is engaging so vociferously. Even in his politically weakened state, no one has more influence on the public debate about Iraq and terrorism than Bush. That said, it's going to take more than rhetoric for his party to turn things around. It's going to take a policy shift in the Iraq war. Frankly, anything will do as long as it's something the voters will view as a change.

But whether the White House realizes it or not, all the president offered the public on Iraq Monday night was "stay the course."

As for the Democrats' "loathing" strategy, the thing the party can't do right now is blink. Democrats, particularly those in the consultant community, have to have the stomach for a security fight. When the going has gotten tough on this issue in the past, the "tough" Democrats turned to the economy, Social Security or health care to bail them out. But that strategy proved to be a failure in '02 and in '04.

Currently, the negative TV ads and direct mail I've seen from Democrats focus on Bush and various domestic issues -- Social Security, oil/energy or the minimum wage. For September, this makes sense. I assume this means Democrats are saving Iraq for October. The shorter their Iraq conversation is with voters, the less the party has to worry about whether they should have their own plan. Republicans are trying to force Democrats to come out with a plan because they want this to be a "choice" election.

That said, Democrats need to look like they have a plan against terrorism. They have to be able to argue coherently that Iraq isn’t part of the war on terror, while at the same time agreeing with Bush that there is a global war on terror. (Can someone say "triangulate"?)

This explains why the Republicans are playing the terror card relatively early. They want to blunt the impact of Iraq in October, and they want to engage the Democrats in an Iraq conversation now so that October can be about competing Iraq plans -- not a referendum on whether things are going well in the streets of Baghdad.

The table is set. Now it's time to sit back and watch how each party tries to respond to the other. Will Democrats take the bait and come out with some sort of Iraq policy that doesn't quickly get summed up as "cut and run"? Will the Bush administration give Republican incumbents something in the form of "change" when it comes to the course in Iraq? Will fear of attacks trump the loathing Democrats (and even some independents) have for Bush?

The only thing missing is a nutty journalist to chronicle the fight, because this is a real-life version of "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail," circa 2006.

-- Chuck Todd is a NationalJournal.com contributing editor and editor in chief of The Hotline. His e-mail address is ctodd@nationaljournal.com.

Chuck Todd is editor in chief of The Hotline .

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