Friday, August 27, 2004

"The Race is Not to the Swift (Boats)"

There is one issue and one issue only in the presidential race and that is the war on terror, including the war in Iraq. And this is the reason that John Kerry seems to be slipping in the polls. Most importanly, he has failed to stake himself out as a viable alternative to Bush on this issue. His sole strategy has been to state that he served in Vietnam and he would serve again. As the saying goes, when your only tool is hammer, treat every problem as if it is a nail. When asked about just about any issue, from Iraq to the environment, the general response from Democrats is, "John Kerry served in Vietnam."

And that's why the Swift Boat Veterans for the Truth have done such damage to him. By raising questions about his service (and let me add that I think there isn't the slightest truth to what the SBVT'ers are alleging), they are helping to saw off the one and only leg that Kerry stands on.

In fact, one might be able to spin out a more general theory about campaigns against vulnerable presidential incumbents. Since World War II, six elections fit into this category: 1948 (Dewey v. Truman); 1976 (Carter v. Ford); 1980 (Reagan v. Carter); 1992 (Clinton v. Bush I); and 1996 (Dole v. Clinton). In each race, the incumbent began the year in a very vulnerable position, with low approval ratings and running with or behind his most likely challengers. In 1948 and 1996, the incumbents (Truman and Clinton) ended up winning, in large part due the lackluster campaigns of their opponents. In 1948, Dewey offered a textbook case of how to run a bland, uncontroversial, and losing campaign. One newspaper claimed that Dewey's speeches boiled down to "Agriculture is important. Our rivers are full of fish. You cannot have freedom without liberty. Our future lies ahead." In 1996, Dole didn't do much better. Like Kerry, he touted his military service and personal sacrifice almost to the exclusion of everything else. His biggest move was to resign his Senate seat in order to focus on the presidential race, in a sense arguing that he was willing to make sacrifices, just as he did in World War II, for the good of the country. Very little was ever said about the substance of how he would serve as president.

This contrasts with the elections in which challengers knocked off incumbents. In 1992, Bill Clinton offered a very specific set of alternatives to George H.W. Bush--middle class tax cuts, welfare reform, a balanced budget, more police on the streets, and national healthcare. The same with Reagan in 1980--budget and tax cuts, deregulations and the abolition of federal departments, increased military spending, and opposition to SALT II.

The one outlier to this pattern is in 1976, when Jimmy Carter ran a rather content-free, Dewey-esque campaign, emphasizing to voters that his intelligence and personal morals meant that they could trust him. This worked, but just barely and then only against an unelected incumbent with the poorest economy in 40 years and in the aftermath of the worst scandal in presidential history.

I should probably add that content-free campaigns seem much more effective against incumbent vice-presidents seem to work better. In 1960, Kennedy defeated Nixon without offering much more than vague promises to "get the country moving again." In 1968, Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War did the trick against Hubert Humphrey. And in 2000, George W. Bush's promise to "uphold the honor and dignity" of the presidency worked against Al Gore. Only Michael Dukakis's focus on "competence, not ideology" failed to defeat and incumbent vice-president.

I guess all of this is a long way of saying that elections against incumbent presidents aren't just an up or down referendum on the incumbent. Rather, even with vulnerable incumbents, ideas matter and you can't beat something with nothing.


Alex said...

This is an interesting theory, but I distrust these sweeping after-the-fact judgments on campaigns. As soon as the voting is over, it seems that there is invariably a consensus that the guy who won (or his managers) gave a display of tactical genius worthy of Bobby Fischer before he went nuts, while the guy who lost was a hopeless schlub who did everything wrong. Even if the guy who 'won' got fewer votes and snuck through only on a Supreme Court order not to count any votes which might inconvenience him.

Dole, for instance, was running against a very strong economy and a guy who was one of the most brilliant politicians in the world. You criticize his campaign, but do you really think that he would have won with a more detailed platform?

carla said...

The Swift Boaters have done damage to Kerry? Not likely.

The four major polls out this week (LA Times, Gallup,NBC/WSJ and Fox show no consistent or substantial pro Bush swing (see for poll details). The only generalization that can be made that Kerry may have had a small erosion of support and that those voters went back into the undecided column.

That said, the Swift Boaters attacks have turned out to be (and rightfully so) an unmitigated fiasco. Most Americans believe that the Bush Campaign was behind the attacks. Further, the attacks have been widely outed as untrue. Kerry's strategy to let the SWV campaign talk and talk and talk...was to give them enough rope to hang themselves. And they did.

Further, the 527 law worked exactly as it was supposed to. Full funding disclosure took place.

More damaging to Bush still is their campaigns gross miscalculation of how Kerry would handle the SBV charges. In the same LA Times poll that showed Kerry's numbers going lower, numbers of people believing that Kerry didn't actually earn his medals was only 18%. Independent voters sided with Kerry 5 to 1. In the Fox poll, even most veterans held, by 50% to 21% that Kerry deserved his purple hearts.

The Bush campaign strategy was to put Kerry on the defensive in August. They wanted him stumbling over his words and firing his advisors. Instead, Bush has been forced on the defensive on this issue..going so far as to say that Kerry's service was more honorable and brave than his own.

LOL The Kerry campaign has Bush actually doing their campaigning for him.