Campaigns Are Destiny

As George W. Bush grows accustomed to job-approval ratings in the middle 30's, the number of explanations for his travails seems to increase by the day. In this case it's not success, but failure that has a thousand fathers: the bungling of Katrina, his drive to privatize Social Security, the mistakes in Iraq, even obstructionist Democrats. The list goes on.

But here's another theory: The president's low approval ratings are the result of the intensely negative type of campaign he chose to run.

A campaign forms the basis for the public's expectations of how the candidate will govern once in office. And Bush, instead of telling Americans what he had accomplished and what he would do once reelected, ran the most negative presidential campaign in history. He spent $177 million on the highest number of negative ads -- a whopping 101,000 -- and the lowest number of positive ads of any presidential campaign in modern time. And he was the incumbent! He won by the narrowest margin of any incumbent since 1828, but he won.

The focus on an almost purely negative campaign meant that he built little support across the country for his agenda. But Bush and his team failed to see this. Believing their own hype, they saw the election results as an affirmation of their key policies, but in fact they were nothing of the sort because those key policies were hardly even discussed. Social Security is the most obvious example. Sure, Bush mentioned privatization as part of his stump speech. But he discussed privatization just five times during the debates, while he mentioned Iraq 73 times. And The New York Times and The Washington Post ran only two stories apiece on the subject during the campaign. A campaign in which Bush had spelled out his proposals would have been a campaign in which we would have had an actual debate about privatization. But Bush kept his plans for Social Security intentionally vague during the campaign. He didn't want the debate in the short term, but in the long term, he damaged himself.

On Iraq as well, Bush said the election affirmed his policy. “We had an accountability moment, and that's called the 2004 elections,” he told The Washington Post. A year later, given the 35 percent approval rating for his handling of Iraq, clearly the American people wish the accountability moment had lasted a bit longer. It is obvious to all but the most partisan of supporters that the 2004 election was not an affirmation of President Bush's Iraq war plan.

But there is a deeper way in which Bush's campaign has dictated his downward trajectory.

In campaigns, the attacks that candidates make against their opponents define them almost as much as their positive agenda by creating a negative narrative of their opponents. Candidates use their negative message to highlight a contrast with their opponent that helps define themselves positively. Bush laid out a clear message about his opponent -- John Kerry was a flip-flopper who couldn't be trusted to fight the war on terror. This reinforced his campaign's narrative that Bush was strong and resolute and would not flinch. When Bush did something unpopular, he turned it to his advantage by saying he did what he thought was right and didn't follow the polls. He wouldn't be one to zigzag.

But now we see the downside of this message of resoluteness: Bush has made it difficult to change course to reflect new realities. And though he has made some changes in his time (he was against a new Homeland Security Department before he was for it), for the most part he has held on to failing policies despite changed circumstances. So he has stayed the course in Iraq despite ample evidence that this has made the occupation more dangerous for U.S. soldiers. Similarly, he has passed more tax cuts despite massive deficits, and maintained every member of his senior team even until one was indicted. What used to be resoluteness is now a stubbornness divorced from the reality Americans see every day. His inability to change course furthers the sense that he's out of touch with people's concerns.

When he does change course, it seems disingenuous and political. So, rather than receive a positive bump when he uncharacteristically apologizes for the mismanagement
of Katrina, or withdraws his nomination of Harriet Miers, as most politicians would, Bush's downward trajectory continues. If he changed course dramatically on issue after issue Bush would become that which he has maligned.

The president's campaign created this box. It is a box of his own making, but it is a box nonetheless. And it will be very difficult for him to unlock it.

Neera Tanden is senior vice president for academic affairs at the American Progress Action Fund in Washington.