TCS Daily


The Permanent Campaign Is, Well, Permanent

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - January 6, 2006 12:00 AM

A funny thing happened to the Bush Administration in 2005. It forgot the basics of politics today.

Fresh off an impressive re-election, President Bush and his political advisors seemed to think that they were entering a period when playing politics didn't matter much. After all, the President would not be facing any more re-election campaigns and perhaps it was believed that the presence of Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress would give the Administration sufficient elbow room to operate in a relatively non-partisan manner. Add to that the belief that the Democrats would be dispirited and demoralized after the 2004 elections, and maybe it is easy to see in retrospect why the Bush Administration might have felt that the laws of politics would be suspended for at least a little while.

When considering the manifold political pratfalls this Administration has experienced over the past year -- from the complete failure of its Social Security reform campaign, to the Harriet Miers nomination debacle, to the dramatic loss of public support regarding the reconstruction of Iraq -- a common theme emerges: The Bush Administration forgot that a sine qua non of operating in the current political environment is acting as if there is a campaign going on.

The permanent campaign demands that charges be answered swiftly by a rapid response team that will be able to get out its message in the same news cycle as its opponents. The permanent political campaign demands that a political team understand that there is no such thing as "time off from politics" and that it must continue to work to define the terms of debate surrounding the promotion of policy initiatives instead of letting opponents define those terms for them. The permanent campaign demands that while a political team must seek to reach out beyond its base, it cannot afford to lose the base since the base will work hardest for the political victories of one particular side.

The Bush Administration forgot the demands of the permanent campaign during 2005 and allowed opponents to preempt the many debates throughout much of the year when it came to public policy issues -- especially Social Security reform and reconstruction in Iraq. For example, Democrats were able to portray the Administration as wanting to rob retiring Americans of their pensions and consistently scored the Administration as being "without a plan" in Iraq. Social Security reform is dead in the water, as a result, and will not be revived anytime soon. A number of political observers have noted that the Administration could have scored an easier -- and perhaps an equally consequential -- win by pushing for tax simplification, but if the Administration's campaign to sell tax simplification had followed along the lines of its campaign to sell Social Security reform, it would have suffered an equivalent political defeat.

Then there was Iraq. The Administration made little to no effort to try to keep support for the reconstruction project at a high level. As such, it left the reconstruction effort open to attack and diminishment by war critics -- including Cindy Sheehan, whose protest against the war could have been nipped in the bud, but which was allowed to grow and to galvanize other protestors by the Administration's inaction and inability to articulate a counterargument to the protestors. It was not until late in 2005 that the Bush Administration finally decided to wage a counterattack and a campaign in support of the reconstruction effort. When it did, the President's poll ratings -- aided by improvements in the economy and by the successful December 15th elections in Iraq -- went upwards. Naturally, the quick uptick reminds us of the power of the President's bully pulpit, and just as naturally, it causes us to wonder why it is that the Administration took so long to respond.

One can -- and perhaps should -- lament the presence of the permanent campaign. It prevents a wholehearted devotion of attention to government and allows for the process of politicization to spread into all areas of public life. But for now, the permanent campaign is a necessary evil.

The author is a TCS contributor. Find more of his writing here.
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2 Comments

Big difference
Between getting information out, and being in permanent campaign mode.

Being in permanent campaign mode means the presidents opponents attack him for everything he does, regardless of whether they privately agree with what he is doing.

For example the SS reform proposal. If the Democrats hadn't been in PCM, they would have offered counter proposals to Bush's plan. Instead they came out firing claims that SS was in no danger, and that Bush was trying to steal money from Grannies in order to make his friends richer. Despite the fact that many of the Democrats who were screaming the loudest, had supported Clinton's plan to fix SS. A plan that had many similarities to Bush's plan. (The biggest difference was that Clinton's plan had the govt directing which companies could be invested in, whereas Bush wanted individuals to do the directing.)

The whole "Bush lied" campaign is nothing but pure PCM. 3 seperate commissions have looked into issue of pre-war intelligence, and they have all concluded that nobody in the adminstration put any pressure on the intelligence community to sex up their reports. They have concluded that every major intelligence service in the world believed that Saddam had both WMDs and WMD programs. They also noted that both WMDs and WMD programs have been found in Iraq, just not in the quantities the spooks thought were there.

Instead of having a reasonable discussion of what went wrong, and how to fix, they immeadiately jumped on the rediculous and logically unsupportable claim that Bush lied.

You learn nothing from people in PCM because of all the noise and smoke that gets generated.

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