Why the GOP debates should worry Obama

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Some Republican worrywarts have been concerned that a vigorous GOP primary might prove divisive. But based on last night’s GOP primary debate, it is President Obamanot other Republicans — who should be worried the most.

As you might have noticed, the GOP candidates largely refused to attack one another, instead focusing their attacks on the president. Obama should take this very seriously.

It was, after all, the Democratic primary debates — beginning in 2003 — which first turned the political narrative against President George W. Bush. Despite winning re-election in 2004, he would never overcome the negative narrative that he, by remaining passive during the Democratic primary process, allowed to take hold.

Iraq, of course, was the dominant issue around this time, and as this Gallup poll clearly illustrates, Bush’s popularity began to rapidly decline beginning in April of 2003.

… There is little coincidence that Bush’s immediate collapse in popularity began at this point. This is largely because the first Democratic debate occurred on April 9 of 2003.

It all started innocently enough. Most of the candidates like John Kerry, Dick Gephardt, and John Edwards were initially reluctant to attack the popular incumbent president, or to appear weak by criticizing his efforts in Iraq.
That all changed when a little-known governor from Vermont named Howard Dean began surging. Dean declared he was from “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Pretty soon, the Democratic contest turned into a competition over who could bash Bush the most.

The attacks were harsh and misleading. This is from FactCheck.org on December 10, 2003:

Political junkies tuning into the most recent Democratic candidates debate Dec. 9 in Durham, NH should not believe all that they heard. Howard Dean and Joe Lieberman overstated the number of jobs lost during President Bush’s tenure. Dean understated the size of the Bush tax cut received by most families. And John Kerry wrongly implied that groundwater contamination had forced a New Hampshire family to stop taking showers.

An academic research paper completed by Professor William L. Benoit in 2006 (PDF) makes it clear that the Democratic primary debates (and campaign) severely damaged Bush’s popularity:

The candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 were united in attacking President George W. Bush. Their continued criticism…steadily eroded the president’s image.

… the repeated attacks contained in the Democratic primary campaign messages could well have influenced which topics were emphasized in news stories, focusing more than they might have otherwise on non-existent weapons of mass destruction, the economy and jobs, and other topics that were unfavorable to the president.

Bush, of course, made a grave error. He apparently felt that it was beneath him to respond to the Democratic attacks. And after all, it’s not like this was a strong field. Kerry and Dean? Come on. Besides, this was, after all, their internecine battle — and there would be plenty of time to campaign once they settled on a nominee. The problem, of course, is that narratives are dangerous things. Once they set in, they are difficult to reverse.

Bush was never able to change the narrative that Howard Dean began in 2003. Clearly, that was the turning point in his popularity (keep in mind, this was before Katrina and Abu Ghraib — and the other obvious incidents that normally are assumed to have cost Bush his popularity).

“President Obama is a one term President,” predicted Rep. Michele Bachmann last night. Who knows if that will be true. But one thing is certain: President Obama should take these debates seriously.

Matt K. Lewis