Democrats need to convince Americans that they can better protect them from terrorism than the Republicans if they are to win in 2006 and 2008, and then govern effectively. The present Democratic pudding needs a theme to tie together its scattershot critique of the President. Whether discussing Iraq, the military, torture, or his domestic policies, one point needs to be made over and over again: President Bush is endangering our lives.
Only if Americans understand how they are threatened by Mr. Bush's bungling the war on terror will they place real limits on his ability to do any further harm. As long as they continue to believe he is protecting them, he will continue to amass -- and mismanage -- executive power.
Focusing on Mr. Bush's inability to manage national security now is particularly important in the event of another 9/11 while Republicans hold the White House. Only if Americans hold Mr. Bush's incompetence responsible for such an event will they not turn to him for protection, allow him to seize even more power, and threaten the end of democracy as we have known it.
Republicans overturned the conventional wisdom that all politics is local when they unexpectedly won the House in 1994. Democrats can do the same in 2006 and 2008, but only if they unite behind and run on the equivalent of a "Contract to Protect America" that is both a substantively better strategy than that of the Republicans, and is communicated effectively to the electorate.
Doing so will require, above all, that we critics of Mr. Bush end our own denial about how deeply we and our loved ones are personally threatened by his bungling the war on terror. Although critics have willy-nilly criticized his handling of the war on terror as one of many issues, we have not internalized what his incompetence means for us personally. If we passionately communicated the truth -- that our loved ones, neighbors and we ourselves are more likely to die because of Mr. Bush's incompetence -- it would do more than anything else to reduce his power and increase our chances of living.
While Republican success is largely due to Karl Rove's genius at implementing the single message that Mr. Bush is protecting us, the Democrats have failed both to understand the importance of this issue and unify behind a response. Howard Dean is often a distraction, Move-On raises 2 or 3 different issues a week, Democratic politicians instinctively resist the idea of message discipline.
Democrats' focus on Mr. Bush's immorality and illegality is also often a distraction. It helps fire up their troops. But the swing voters they need to reach will tolerate his deeply immoral domestic spying, for example, as long as they believe Mr. Bush is protecting us. Only if they understand how dramatically his policies endanger us will they desert him not only on this but everything else as well.
Mr. Bush has endangered us by failing to provide homeland security, weakening our military, wrongly invading Iraq and not focusing on Al Qaeda, allowing Osama Bin Laden a safe sanctuary in Pakistan, torturing illegally, failing to build a genuine democracy in Afghanistan, alienating world opinion and our allies, dividing us at home and amassing huge budget deficits.
AS A RESULT, HE HAS (1) VASTLY INCREASED A HUGE BODY OF ENRAGED FANATICS DEDICATED TO KILLING US BY ANY MEANS POSSIBLE, WHO ARE IN IT FOR THE LONG HAUL, SUPPORTED BY THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE 1.2 BILLION-STRONG MUSLIM WORLD; AND (2) SERIOUSLY WEAKENED OUR ABILITY TO DEFEND OURSELVES AGAINST THEM.
Despite the clear evidence of Mr. Bush's failure to fight an effective war on terror, however, the one issue Americans still give him high marks on in poll after poll is that he is protecting us. People's death anxiety is so deep that it has overwhelmed reason, causing most Americans to ignore the overwhelming evidence that the President is incapable of protecting us.
Those like James Carville and Paul Begala who argue that the President has such a lock on this issue that the Democrats need to "change the subject" to jobs, education and healthcare are thus profoundly wrong. As we saw in the 2004 election, people are so legitimately afraid that it is impossible to change the subject until people believe that Democrats can better protect them than Republicans. This is actually a relatively easy case for Democrats to make. The difficult part is for them to develop the message discipline necessary to penetrate people's psychological defenses against the truth.
Karl Rove's political genius has lain in his instinctive understanding of Americans' death anxiety following 9/11. He has crafted a single-themed political strategy -- "the President is protecting us" -- implemented with ruthless message discipline, that focuses on triggering people's death anxiety and desire to be protected by their President.
And this strategy has worked. No matter what the issue -- Iraq, spying, torture -- Messrs. Bush and Cheney, backed up by a cast of hundreds ranging from totalitarian-minded intellectuals like William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer, to disturbed haters like Ann Coulter, to propagandists at Fox News, relentlessly justify it with the Big Lie that it is "saving American lives." Unless Democrats successfully respond to this Big Lie, they will be unlikely to win in 2006 or 2008 or -- even if they do win -- to govern successfully.
The consistently strong but irrational belief that Mr. Bush is protecting us is primarily based on the largely unconscious death anxiety that is lodged deep within our psyches. 9/11, the first major attack on American soil in which ordinary people died by the thousands, not only triggered a deep fear of death among the American people. It also triggered a deep desire to be protected by the one person the Constitution authorizes to do so: the President.
Given their hold on the Presidency, the Republicans' lock on the public psyche will not easily be dislodged. If Democrats are to regain and hold power, they will need above all to accomplish two tasks: (1) unite behind a coherent strategy for fighting terrorism that can actually work, a real "Contract to Protect America"; and (2) exercise a Rove-like message discipline -- by political leaders and other Bush critics -- to pound away at the theme that "President Bush is endangering our lives."
In future commentary in this space we will discuss in depth how Mr. Bush is endangering our lives. Our next piece will take a deeper look at the psychology of this issue -- both in the public and among Mr. Bush's critics -- to be followed by a discussion of how each of his major policies has made it more likely that you and I will die in coming years.