Monday, April 24, 2006

Donkeys and Elephants Hunting Bear

A hunter from Washington State is wiser if not necessarily resting comfortably this morning after a lesson provided him by a black bear on how easily predators can become prey. The man in question was one of two hunters chasing the bear on land owned by Rainier Timber near Olympic National Park. It is not currently bear season but the two had obtained a special permit from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, presumably for removing a nuisance to harvesting the timber.

The two found the bear and pursued it for some time cross-country. Our hero charged into some heavy brush, not realizing the bear was close by. It was at this point that his ursine quarry went on the offensive. It ambushed the hunter and dragged him down an embankment. The bear was ultimately shot by the hunter's partner but not before his would-be slayer suffered a broken arm and wrist as well as two deep bite wounds on his upper thigh.

It is a cautionary tale that both Republicans and Democrats might want to consider in their political hunt for bear leading up to November mid-term elections. The Democratic leadership is in New Orleans this week, attempting to assemble the pieces for a successful, unified strategy for those elections. They know they want the campaign to be a referendum on President Bush's and the GOP's leadership and competence.

To that end, the choice of New Orleans was no fluke. Just as lack of forward momentum in Iraq has become the centerpiece of Democratic criticisms for U.S. foreign policy, so New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are the focus for ineffective domestic policy. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and flooding there and lackluster response by government shocked the nation last summer. While there was sufficient blame available for all levels of government, the Bush Administration suffered significantly for federal incompetence.

Even as the President campaigned and prepared for a major speech in his state, Republican California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger evoked the specter of that slipshod response on Saturday in an ongoing dispute with the Bush Administration to declare a pre-emptive federal disaster for California's own fragile levees. "We're not going to wait for their response," Schwarzenegger declared this weekend. "We have seen what happens in New Orleans when people waited for the federal government."

Yet Democratic strategists watching President Bush and his Party bumbling through the woods before them would do well not to become cocky. New Orleans voters went to the polls this weekend and the results were far from reassuring for Democrats hoping to hold that city up as a symbol of national dissatisfaction with ineffective government and the status quo. Initial results show local incumbents faring well, regardless of office or Party, often winning their elections outright.

One notable exception is New Orleans's feisty, embattled Mayor Ray Nagin, who was forced into a runoff after garnering only thirty-eight percent of the vote. That may not be entirely surprising, given legitimate criticism of his handling of things last summer and a crowded twenty-two-candidate field. What could be troubling for either Party are the demographic shifts in his support from four years ago.

The African American Nagin was never overwhelmingly popular with black constituents. This time around, he won over sixty-five percent of the vote in predominately black wards. Strategists might argue the backlash against a Republican federal response was working perfectly in his favor. But among predominately white wards, where he had won big back in 2002, Nagin received less than ten percent of the vote.

The reason was a statement made by the Mayor a few weeks ago, thought by many to be a blundered attempt to reach and rally black voters, that God wanted New Orleans to retain an African American majority. (Presently, the pattern of those returning has created a white majority there.)

Many analysts see Nagin as the classic man in the middle. He is torn trying to satisfy both his historic core of supporters as well as courting a new voting segment that fate has thrown his way. In his attempts to satisfy both, he may lose sufficient support from either to ensure his re-election.

That is certainly the case for Bush and the GOP as they attempt to deal with increasingly unhappy moderates while attempting to placate hard-line core conservatives. Yet the Democratic Party has been in a similar battle between its mainstream moderates and populist liberal core for some time now. At the present, Democrats are not simply divided over what message(s) they should offer as an alternative to Republicans. They are also divided over whether they even need to offer an alternative.

One side is represented by long-time Democratic strategist Elaine Kamarck, who argues that Democrats should have a big year in 2006 regardless of what they do. "I think [Republicans] are better still than we are in campaign politics," she admits, "but I think that when you've been an incumbent for so long, reality trumps politics."

The other side counters that it will not be so easy. "We have to do two things," says Bobby Kahn, the Georgia Democratic Party Chairman. "One, disqualify the Republicans, and two, provide an alternative. The first part, they've done for us, and the second part, we need to do."

Then there is the threat of the imminent appearance of the GOP's most feared hunter in the woods. As I posted last Thursday, Karl Rove's seeming demotion from policy-making duties will free him up to concentrate on the upcoming mid-term elections. However, it is clear that many Democrats, rather than panicking at Rove's appearance, are inclined to dismiss him as fated to join the Washington bear hunter as prey rather than predator.

That viewpoint is succinctly summed up here by the poster Thrashymachus. If half of Rove's old post was politics, the argument runs, and the President's approval ratings tanked throughout 2005 as well as 2006 to-date, then what is there to fear from him doing the same incompetent job full-time? Association with Rove might even hurt GOP candidates across the nation.

I will agree that Rove is in a weaken position but I cannot accept the predictions of his gross failure by Democratic prognosticators. They might come true if Rove functioned as these Dems describe his role in the campaign. But Rove has never really been noted for his skills as a Republican cheerleader. Bush had an essentially weak year throughout 2004 and did little to turn it around – many think he even hurt himself further in the Presidential debates – but that did not keep him from winning re-election at year's end.

GOP politics has long been about negative campaigning, especially when things get close and tough. Rove is the undisputed master at creating climates of fear and rallying those in fear to turn out and vote for Republicans, not so much as the Party that will make their fondest wishes come true but as the only Party that can save them from their worst nightmares.

Rove can do that in the upcoming Congressional elections and he can do it largely in the background. He does not even necessarily have to reverse the table on national issues where Republicans are currently weak. He need only find one or two issues of local interest that he can exploit against the Democratic candidate and his work is done.

Moreover, I suspect his role this time around has little to do with gaining Republicans more seats in Congress or even holding their current majority. Rather, he is more likely concentrated on keeping both the House and Senate under GOP control until the 2008 elections, when a new Republican candidate will be nominated and much of the current dissatisfaction personally associated with President Bush will be minimized.

The political woods of this country are beginning to fill with donkeys and elephants; all on a bear hunt for the hearts and minds of the American public. The Democrats have good reason to strongly hope they are the bear this time around. However, that is not the same as knowing they are the bear. And keep this in mind about our bear hunting analogy – the stupid hunter in the story got his body mauled and his pride wounded but he is still among us, while the crafty bear who so bruised him is soon to be featured as a rug in the former's trophy room.

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