David Frum September 30th, 2006 at 12:00 am
“It should come as no surprise if the Bush administration undertakes a pre-emptive war against Iran sometime before the November election.” So blogged former U.S. Senator Gary Hart at HuffingtonPost.com on Sept. 23.
No, replied a Democratic congressional candidate on another left-wing Web site four days later, the Bush administration is not plotting to attack Iran. It is plotting to produce a fake capture of bin Laden.
Other Democrats hypothesize that the administration will somehow contrive to lower gasoline prices.
But all Democrats are buzzing with one angry certitude: Karl Rove is planning an “October surprise” to cheat the Democrats out of victory in the November elections.
Democratic partisans buzz with this certainty on the eve of every election. When Osama bin Laden released a videotaped diatribe on the eve of the 2004 vote, Walter Cronkite (Walter Cronkite!) emerged from retirement to tell Larry King that the thing had somehow been engineered by Rove:
“I’m a little inclined to think that Karl Rove, the political manager at the White House, who is a very clever man, he probably set up bin Laden to this thing.”
For Republicans and conservatives, there is an amazing audacity about these Democratic suspicions. The fact is that the most successful October surprise in any recent U.S. national election was carried off by Democrats, not Republicans.
Early in the summer of 2000, Williams Childs, a Maine judge, issued an order requisitioning any arrest records involving George W. Bush. This was an odd order for him to make. He was a probate judge, so his official activities extended only to wills and testaments. But he got what he was looking for: a document showing Bush had been arrested in 1976 for driving under the influence of alcohol. Childs, a prominent local Democrat, then held the document tight for four months.
Childs released his scoop on Nov. 2, four days before the 2000 vote. Within seconds of the story’s broadcast, a massive anonymous fax campaign delivered the details to every news outlet in the country.
The story hurt Bush badly. A week before election day, most polls showed Bush narrowly ahead of Gore. On Nov. 6, he finished 500,000 votes behind.
The trick so nearly worked in 2000 that some Democrats were understandably tempted to try again in 2004.
This time, the source of the story was a Texas Democrat, Bill Burkett. He provided CBS News with documents purporting to show that Bush had received special favours during his service in the Texas Air National Guard. This time, the documents were almost immediately exposed as forgeries. The backlash destroyed the careers of Dan Rather and Mary Mapes of CBS–and by the way silenced any lingering questions about Bush’s Guard duty.
The Burkett/Mapes story reveals the dangers of attempting an “October surprise.” So much can go wrong! And how much more can go wrong with a war or a bombing campaign? Planes can be shot down, pilots lost, targets missed, civilians killed. To time a war to coincide with an election would not only be a desperately cynical act; it would also be recklessly risky.
In actual fact, Rove has run his campaigns for George W. Bush on the most simple and obvious principles. Rove thinks that the number of “swing” voters–voters who truly might vote for either party–has been shrinking for decades and now numbers only about 9% of the electorate. He likewise thinks that Republicans win not by swaying undecideds, but by exciting their own large base. And so he runs campaigns that rely not on clever gimmicks but on strong, clear conservative messages. The only surprise about a Rove campaign is how few surprises they contain.
Democrats should know this strategy. After all, they have been on its receiving end for three elections in a row: 2000, 2002 and 2004. And yet they persist in believing that next time Rove will junk the methods of a lifetime and resort to sneaky maneuvers and complicated stratagems. That so many Democrats have come to believe that dirty tricks win elections tells us very little about elections. But it reveals something important–and ugly–about those Democrats themselves.