National Security Numbers

Brad and Matt are arguing over what the poll numbers mean for Democratic chances to pull even on national security. As Brad notices, Americans disapprove of the president's foreign policy, 44%-48%. But that's basically the same result as the poll got before election day, which was 45%-49%. More importantly, these same voters are loving Bush on terrorism, 61%-33%. And while these numbers are a tad contradictory, but I wouldn't read too much into that. They don't really reflect how much voters like Bush's foreign policy. They're more about how capable voters judge Bush on foreign policy. It's a heuristics thing. The president has gone to great lengths to paint himself a rough, tough, brash, and simple cowboy. Foreign policy, which evokes images of subtle diplomatic maneuvering and sly manipulation of international bodies, is antithetical to the Bush image. So he gets bad marks on that because poll respondents, who really have no idea how well our foreign policy is working, or even how to judge how well our foreign policy is working, figure Bush is probably mucking it up.

Terrorism, on the other hand, fits perfectly with his image. After all, if the judgment on foreign policy isn't particularly logical, how much less coherent is the verdict on terrorism? What exactly is Bush doing about terrorism that voters like so much? In fact, what is Bush doing about terrorism at all? This is an under-the-radar fight and very, very few of us have any accurate idea about how it's progressing. So here too voters aren't judging Bush's policy on terrorism, but his persona on it. As a media-created entity, Bush is supremely capable to handle terrorism, indeed, it's the only thing he's able to take on. Voters stilldon't like his Iraq policy, economic policy, or foreign policy, but so long as he seems tough enough to personally punch bin-Laden in the face, he's going to get high marks on terrorism. And Democrats aren't going to make gains by advocating this or that plan, but by creating an image of toughness, something I'm convinced can only be done by a presidential candidate. Our great mistake with Kerry was to forget that the guy did not come off like his resume, and thus he did nothing to make us seem tougher on terrorism. Nominating someone like Clark would have. In any case, we're going to be trailing on that issue until we have an opportunity to recreate our image, which probably means the next terrorist attack or presidential campaign, whichever comes first.

See also my earlier post on the CBS/NYT poll.