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.

Comments

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  17. Mark,

    I wonder if Kerry hasn’t focused on economics much in public because he’s being advised to use the pre-September time frame to mostly message “himself” and gain name recogntion. I remember reading some op-ed concerning this awhile back.

    In any case, I would imagine that post-RNC, we’ll see the Kerry messaging changing into strong repetition of the “bullet points” they’ll want us all chanting on the morning of Nov. 2nd. And domestic issues have to be among those.

    Those who are veteran campaign watchers would know more than I do: has there been a shift in the last decade towards social and moral issues and away from economic ones, compared to say the fifties and sixties?

  18. Ken, that’s an interesting take, and it would indeed explain some of the stances Kerry’s taken. The only problem is, that’s an awfully fine line to walk… and a line which I think is likely to alienate more voters than it convinces.

    I think Kerry’s got a much better chance of winning by setting the campaign agenda onto domestic issues (economy, energy) and appealing to the center rather than trying to play to the right.

    I’ve gotta hand it to him though, if that *is* his strategy, the man’s got a big pair o’ brass ones, politically speaking. :)

  19. Mark,

    Intriguing idea, particularly because appealing to swing states would seem to involve a fair amount of careful balancing in this election. Let’s hope you’re right!

  20. Let me suggest one other Kerry strategy, one that I really hope the higher-ups are using and that its necessary secrecy just prevents us from hearing about: Kerry wins (and the Democrats really win) if he can just convince conservatives that Bush isn’t that conservative and that Kerry wouldn’t have done much different than Bush in the war on terror, except for the way in which he would have eventually prosecuted the war in Iraq. One think we know from looking at the history of voting in this country is that a good number of voters need to be motivated if they’re going to take the time to cast their ballot. Bush’s unfavorables among his own base being what they are, if Kerry can campaign in such a way that says “well I’m not so different, just a bit smarter” then he robs some of the conservative base of their motivation to vote. He may also stop undecideds from voting, sure enough, but the Dems and various progressives are riled up and are going to vote in droves, I think without questions. So unmotivated under-voting conservatives and motivated voting democrats means not only a Kerry win but a bigger chance of gains and turn-arounds in close House and Senate races.

    I should point out that my “hope” does not mean that I “believe” the powers that be in the Kerry camp are doing just this, since I see little evidence of it, but I also know I’m not in a battleground state, so… Still, it would be a favorable explanation for Kerry’s awkward positioning regarding his vote authorizing the President to coerce Iraqi compliance with U.N. resolutions and the subsequent Iraq war.

  21. Mark,

    Agreed. And in this case, Kerry may only need a small number of swing voters. If he stays ahead in the states where Gore won in 2000, and can maintain the lead in a couple of the swing states where he’s currently leading (that Gore lost in 2000), he’ll win.

    But sadly, instead of consolidating early the momentum against what is still a very weak incumbent (though it’s hard to remember that sometimes given the skill with which Bush manipulates media), Kerry is going to have to battle this out to the finish.

  22. I think you’re correct about Kerry’s advantage due to Bush’s less-than-universal-approval incumbency, but I also think that there have been some serious strategic mistakes in his campaign.

    First was the convention. I don’t know what people were thinking, but trying so hard to portray him as a commander-in-chief rather than a skilled diplomat or politician just isn’t going to have any long-term sale value with swing voters, and in the long run, sends them mixed signals. You can’t out-hawk the war hawks.

    Second, as you said, was his response to the swifties. He should have laughed it off or ignored it; either would have relegated the swifties back to the fringe quickly and firmly.

    The third is that he hasn’t got the media talking about specifics of his economic and energy plans instead of reporting about the swifties. If he can pull off the CNN sound-bite barrier a few times, he can still win it strongly.

    Anyway, I don’t know who’s calling the shots in Kerryville, but they almost seem to be trying to pull in undecided Republicans. And that ain’t happening. It’s a tried and true equation; go for the swing voters, and you’ve got the election.