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Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Are you ready to be scared to death?

I don't usually read the Fox News website, nor do I much admire the political acumen of Dick Morris (famous for helping Clinton with the "triangulation" strategy that pitted the Democratic President against his own fellow party members in Congress).

Nonetheless, I think the latest offering by Morris on Fox is an accurate view of the 2004 presidential race.

The latest Fox poll reveals that President Bush is deadlocked with potential challenger Senator John Kerry 45-45, which Morris says is big trouble for Bush because undecideds often vote against incumbents.

More importantly, Morris points out that the President/Republicans trail Kerry/Democrats on almost every important potential campaign issue: most notably, on the economy, health care, and education. The spreads are not especially close either, ranging from 11 to 21 percent.

The only issues Bush and the Republicans win are fighting terrorism and handling the situation in Iraq. The spreads are 23 and 14 percent on these issues.

Unfortunately for Bush and company, Americans say that the three most important issues in this year's election are the economy, health care (or Medicare) and education. That's a bit misleading because 8 % said homeland secuirty and 6% said terrorism, which adds to 14% and puts it above education as an issue.

In any case, Morris says Bush has been so successful fighting terror that Americans are now (erroneously) "taking safety for granted." As a result, they are free to focus on what are to his mind relatively less important issues like health care and jobs.

To me, this is the dumbest comment in the entire piece:
Americans are wrong to see terrorism as a fourth-place issue. Education or the economy or health care won't knock down buildings and kill 3,000 people. Terrorism will.
This is precisely the view that devastated Democrats in the 2002 midterm congressional elections.

Lack of health care does kill Americans. How many premature deaths result when 43 million people are uninsured and tens of millions more are underinsured? The Institute of Medicine estimates 18,000! TV doesn't have a spectacular fireball to run and rerun, but the consequences for individuals are every bit as cataclysmic. In human terms, that is six September 11 events every year.

Joblessness too can be devastating. I found this evidence on the Applied Research Bulletin webpage of the Canadian government's website, from 1996:
The ARB analysis reviews several studies with different approaches to better understand the impact that unemployment may have on people's physical and mental health and to determine the social costs it entails for individuals and society. Some of the studies seek to assess the psychological impact of unemployment. Others attempt to determine the effects of unemployment-related stress or shock on the incidence of various illnesses or on mortality. These two types of studies are generally based on assessments conducted among laid-off unemployed workers or studies of the unemployed. They show that the unemployed visit doctors much more frequently than workers and are more often admitted to hospital. These studies, however, are not able to establish a systematic relationship between the incidence of use of hospital services and an increase in unemployment.

Studies conducted by Dr. M. Harvey Brenner in the United States, however, are among the few that establish a direct link between unemployment and social pathologies. In the research he conducted for the U.S. Congress in 1984, Brenner estimated the direct relationship between the increase in the U.S. unemployment rate and the occurrence of several social pathologies, including the mortality rate, cardio-vascular or cirrhoses deaths, the homicide and suicide rates, admissions to psychiatric hospitals and arrests and incarcerations. For example, Brenner estimates that a 10 percent increase in the unemployment rate would have the direct effect of increasing the mortality rate by 1.2 percent, the suicide rate by 0.7 percent, and the rate of incarcerations by six percent. Serious studies like Brenner's indicate that social problems are attributable to unemployment.
About 2.4 million people per year die in the US, so a 1.2% increase is 28,800. If one extrapolates, that means a 1% increase in unemployment directly increases mortality by 2,800 people.

Nearly a September 11 for every 1% increase in unemployment.

Morris would have the President emphasize the prospect of WMD terrorism rather than other very real problems of Americans. Expect the President to scare us between now and November:
The more Americans think he has succeeded in mitigating the terrorist threat, the more they vote for Kerry. The more they feel that terrorism is still at our doorstep - as it is - the more they back Bush as the better wartime leader.

The traditional incumbent recipe of claiming success backfires here. Bush must make clear to us all the threats that remain, not try to take credit for the end of the terror danger. He must make the most of what he has yet to achieve, rather than try to sell his successes.

Success extinguishes his mandate. Tasks that remain before us rekindle it.
Morris cites polling data that shows even elevating the threat level affects public opinion on this issue -- so it won't even take an attack for Bush to emphasize this issue.

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