August 2004
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Day August 26, 2004

Will Kerry’s campaign squander its natural advantage?

I’ve refrained thus far from commenting on “Swift Boat Vets” and the whole Vietnam service mess. Mostly I’ve been hoping it won’t, in retrospect, become “the moment when Kerry lost momentum” and squandered his natural advantage in this election. And Kerry definitely has a natural advantage in the election since historically, incumbent Presidents haven’t done well unless they’re further ahead than Bush now is.

But two months is a lot of ads, attacks, and responses by the Kerry campaign. And thus far, the strategy for responding to Republican attack is underwhelming. In my view, Thomas Schaller has it right on Gadflyer: Kerry’s mistake was to respond rationally and try to refute the attack point by point. Operating on the thesis (previously discussed with respect to Krugman v. O’Reilly) that political discourse today is “about” strength, appearance, and dominance, the Kerry campaign looks weak, worried, and anything but masterful when they try to take the Swift Boat attacks seriously.

Schaller is right on the money:

…here’s what John Kerry and cohorts should have done when the Swift Boaters launched their attack ads: Laughed and laughed and laughed some more, scoffing repeatedly that this episode is the best thing that could have happen for their campaign. In unison, Kerry and his surrogates should said they were pleasantly bemused that Bush was, in effect, conceding defeat so early in the campaign by resorting to desperate tactics that will only steer more Americans toward the Democratic ticket.

…the storyline could have been, Bush Is Desperate. (And, returning for a moment to the rational world of political normality, isn’t that the underlying truth of this whole episode?) Instead, the opposite storyline being promoted by the Bush campaign is gaining currency: Kerry and his running mate, John Edwards, are desperate.

A hint about why Schaller’s view is correct can be seen in today’s news — Bush is now going to work on court action against the “shadowy” outside groups who are attacking Kerry. For looking like the magnanimous statesman: Bush 1, Kerry 0. Also, for looking like a statesman while neutralizing the fact that his own campaign staff actually worked with and advised the “shadowy” outside groups: Bush 2, Kerry 0. Those who expect both candidates to operate on the basis of fact and reason will naturally ask why it’s taken so long for Bush to disassociate himself with the smear campaign, given that this has dragged on for the whole month between the DNC and RNC. Oh…wait, that explains itself. Bush gets to talk about this at the convention next week, and look good reigning in his own attack dogs on prime-time TV: Bush 3, Kerry 0.

Could Kerry have neutralized this whole thing by choosing a high-profile spot to laugh himself silly over the Swift Vets? Possibly. The larger point is that we’re seeing a dangerous trend where the Kerry campaign, in their fervor over fighting a campaign of ideas, is getting their asses kicked up and down the field in the court of appearances and opinion.

No set of facts we can possibly put in front of the American people at this point will change the perception of many that Bush is a strong leader, or better able to secure America. Rational examination of this administration’s track record simply doesn’t bear out the opinion of those who believe Bush is a strong leader whose actions have made us safer. That opinion is being formed, I believe, through appearances and rhetoric and stage-craft, not logic. It’s not like the facts haven’t been available, after all — they’re simply less important to winning this election than we’d like to believe. And that hurts to say, because I believe politics should be about ideas and deliberation.

But we also have to win. The next two months aren’t about ideas, and they’re certainly not about facts, they’re about Kerry challenging Bush on the only ground where the latter is still strong: the court of appearances. If Kerry can win, he’ll have four years to talk about his ideas. To get there, he’ll need to spend two short months going toe-to-toe with a master of political appearances and indirection.