Paul, LA Times poll

Poll Vault… I don?t know quite what to make of the new LA Times poll that seems to show a perceptible move towards Bush since last month on an array of fronts. Alas Ruy Teixeira is on the road, so we may have to wait for his always-interesting analysis. But a couple quick thoughts.

First, the swift boat vet attacks do seem to have done some damage:

?In the July Times poll, 53% of voters said Kerry had demonstrated in his Vietnam combat missions the “qualities America needs in a president,” while 32% said that by “protesting the war in Vietnam, John Kerry demonstrated a judgment and belief that is inappropriate in a president.”

In the August survey, that balance nudged away from Kerry, with 48% saying he had demonstrated the right qualities and 37% saying he had exhibited poor judgment.

Likewise, the share of voters saying they lacked confidence in Kerry as a potential commander in chief edged up from 39% in July to 43% now; the percentage that said they were confident in him slipped from 57% to 55%. Both changes were within the poll’s margin of error, yet both tracked with the poll’s general pattern of slight Kerry slippage.?

Second, running rather contrary to these findings, is how respondents (registered voters) answered the question of whether Kerry ?misrepresented his war record and does not deserve his war medals, or that he fought honorably and does deserve his war medals? (the poll was taken over the last few days). Overwhelmingly, the respondents sided with Kerry?10 to 1 in the case of Democrats (no surprise), 50-50 among Republicans (interesting) and 5 to 1 among independents (wow!).

From this I draw the conclusion that the longer the medals issue stays out there, and the more the focus remains on the swift boat veterans? numerous lies and the Bush administration?s connections to them, the better for Kerry?which is why the Kerry camp is smart to keep that part of the story alive and hammer away on it without mercy.

But if the overall mildly positive results for Bush in this poll are real–and it must be said they run counter to many other polls–then clearly the Kerry campaign has screwed up.

What was the biggest screw-up? Personally, I don?t think it was their decision not to fight back harder and earlier on the swift boat attacks. Yes, the campaign seems to have been foolishly unprepared. But waiting for the mainstream press to acknowledge the story and begin shooting it down was not necessarily a bad strategy, given the circumstances. And as noted in a previous post, I can also appreciate (even if not ultimately agree with) their reasons for not having Kerry be more assertive about why he protested the war.

Instead, I think the biggest mistake so far has been that Kerry gave a convention speech with virtually no policy specifics. I know, I know, people say that?s boring; you don?t want a speech to go on and on, laundry-list-like; the most important thing was to introduce himself and his larger themes, etc. But the fact is that you came away from that speech with little concrete idea of what Kerry will do if he is elected president. The policies are there, and a number of them?in healthcare and education, for instance–are quite bold and promising. And Kerry does talk about them on the stump. But in the one moment this entire summer when he had the American public?s attention, he and his staff chose not to give over even five minutes to a discussion of his specific agenda.

The consequence of that decision can be seen in LA Times poll:

?The poll spotlighted another challenge for Kerry. After a Democratic convention that focused much more on Kerry’s biography than his agenda, 58% said they knew even a fair amount about the policies he would pursue as president; nearly 4 in 10 said they knew not much or nothing at all.

By comparison, although Bush has put forward few specifics about his second-term priorities, 70% said they had a good idea of the policies he would pursue.?

Now we?re headed into a GOP convention during which the president is set to give a speech chock full of new policy proposals. Maybe it?s too late for him. Maybe the voters think Bush has no credibility on this stuff anymore because most of his other policies have produced nothing but disaster. Maybe it?s savvy of the Kerry campaign to wait until the debates to have a real policy discussion. Maybe, maybe, maybe. But it just seems to me that it’s almost always better to frame the discussion than to have your opponent frame it, and at a time when the country could be debating John Kerry?s agenda for the future, we?re going to be debating George W. Bush?s.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly.