Monday, August 23, 2004

The Revenge of Lee Atwater

Although I am absolutely sick of the Kerry Vietnam story, I have to admit that he brought it upon himself. Kerry made the decision to hype his Vietnam service, thereby inviting every Republican scum-hurler in America to try to punch holes in his story, fair or unfair. The result is that almost no one can name any significant domestic policy initiative of the Kerry-Edwards campaign. The point of nominating Edwards for V-P was to help put domestic issues front and center--so what did the Kerry campaign do, but take those issues back off the table by spending so much time reminding everyone of his service thirty years ago. On this, the Bush campaign operatives are right--this election should be about what the president will do over the next four years, not what they did thirty years ago (even though that phrase is designed to move the subject away from Bush's less-than-honorable evasion of service). By blowing the chance to say clearly what Kerry would do with the office, he lost his main chance to make clear what his answer to this question is.

The cause of this error is simple--it's the revenge of Lee Atwater. Republican operatives like Atwater were so successful in convincing voters to at least suspect that Democrats were, to not put too fine a point on it--weird. They didn't share the values of regular folks, despised the military, wanted to undermine widely shared moral values, etc. Ever since Democrats have bent over backwards to try to avoid this tag of "weirdness," and the Democratic convention in Boston was the reductio ad absurdum of this effort.

The problem with this is that by spending their time trying to avoid the "weirdness" tag from Republicans, Democrats lose the opportunity to: a) reverse the accusation and argue that it's the Republicans who are weird, out of touch, obsessed on causes inexplicable to the average American, etc. and; b) lay out their own agenda and get something like a mandate to legislate it once in office. Clinton, at his best, avoided this trap by reversing the weirdness accusation and turning it into reasonably progressive policy proposals (the best example of this was his original welfare reform plan, which would have been much more generous than what ended up passing, and which--as he admits in his memoir--he could have passed in something like its original form, if he hadn't blown it by going for health care. The problem with Kerry's attempt to challenge the Republican weirdness accusation is that he can't use the attempt to "look tough" to serve any reasonable Democratic policy agenda. It's pure defense, no offense.

This trap was also caused by the effort to "stay positive," which was really a way to try to prevent the Republicans from going negative. This was stupid, since a challenger by definition needs to make the case for removing the incumbent from office. That is, the challenger needs to go negative (and there's also a good argument that voters get more useful information through negative ads than through positive ones). But in order to prevent the Republicans from going negative on him (which they did anyways) Kerry put himself in a box in which it is very hard for him to go negative on the president, without being called a hypocrite.

It's time for Democrats to recognize that, with the waning of the crime, Cold War and welfare issues (which were fair game--Dems were, in fact, on the wrong side of these), the weirdness charge lacks punch. Until they shrug off the ghost of Lee Atwater, Democrats will continue to run ineffective campaigns, and, what is more, those that they win will ineffectively segue into governing.


enowning said...

The claim that the Democrats have been running a positive campaign strikes me as, well, weird, after the unrelenting attacks on the President's military service, and a convention where we watched F 9/11's director seated with the party elite.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I don't think the waning of crime has reduced the saliency of "weirdness"; Take gun control, for instance, which Democrats are still wild for, even if they're a bit quiet about it: (It WAS the only thing that could drag Kerry back to Washington from the campaign trail, after all.) What's weirder, being in favor of gun control during a crime wave, or being in favor of gun control when crime is down? Strikes me the latter is weirder, because it loses the non-weird, if objectively mistaken, motive of crime reduction. Which is the only motive for gun control the average person can respect.

As for the Cold war being over, now we've got the War on Terror taking it's place. And if Democrats don't see it that way, well, wasn't that their problem during the Cold war, too?

alkali said...

The Swift Boat Vets released a book and television advertising campaign just days after the Democratic convention focusing on Kerry's Vietnam service had ended. Can it reasonably be suggested that (i) the book and media campaign were prepared in a matter of days, or (ii) though prepared well in advance, would have been abandoned or ignored if the Democrats had focused their convention on, say, health care policy?

Clearly, this assault was coming whatever Kerry did, he had one chance to preemptively defend himself, and he took it. I agree that was not a costless choice, but it was a reasonable one.

Anonymous said...

Although I am absolutely sick of the Kerry Vietnam story, I have to admit that he brought it upon himself. Kerry made the decision to hype his Vietnam service, thereby inviting every Republican scum-hurler in America to try to punch holes in his story, fair or unfair.The NCLB act mandates the beating of children who fail their exams. 99.95% of the Bush tax cuts go to people making more than $5,000,000 a year. The Clear Skies act allows the dumping of toxic waste into public drinking water.

Hey, if George W. Bush didn't want people lying about his record, he shouldn't have brought it up. Also, he eats babies.

Anonymous said...

Even if Kerry had never mentioned his Vietnam record, the Kerry-haters would have attacked it anyway. It might have been a slightly different attack -- "Kerry never mentions his Vietnam medals. Let me tell you what he's trying to hide..." -- but it would have come anyway.

GWB doesn't run on his National Guard record, but that hasn't stopped opponents from attacking it.

Anonymous said...

The "he brought it on himself" meme needs to have a stake driven through its heart. When "it" is a slander campaign funded by one's opponents' supporters, there's no way one can be said to have brought it on oneself. To claim otherwise is a failure of logic, common sense, and, sorry, ethical thinking.

Anonymous said...

I fail to see how you can say he didn't bring it on himself. His entire campaign is, essentially, "I served in Vietnam. I was a hero." Excuse me if we decide to verify his claims. And, it's not slander if it's true, as seems to be the case with most, if not all of the Swiftboat claims.

Anonymous said...

A little late to add to this discuss, but just a clarification: Kerry never said he would not take the president to task for what he deems as a failure to serve the American people. He just said he would not go after W. the person, such as his DUI and other youthful indescretions.

A July Washington Post article points this out, and includes this line from a recent Kerry television ad:

"John Kerry will fight to bring back the 1.8 million jobs that have been lost under George W. Bush."

The rest of the article can be found here:

Anonymous said...

First, the author exposed a bias by his statement; "Bush's less-than-honorable evasion of service"
Where, may I ask, did the author serve and in what conflict. If the author had served in any branch of service he should know that you joke about another vet's branch but you should NEVER attack him on it. Service is service, here or abroad.
Secon: how, exactly, does 4 months of combat service qualify you over some one who has LED a Nation at war? even moreso when the record is so suspect with Kerry? Why has Kerry not signed to have ALL his records released? and why is the media silent on this.
Answer the ones feeding the koolaide to you are not going to let you in on their secret.
Lee Atwater politics has nothing on the Kerry Spinsters. Why is it an attack if one makes use of your record in public office to point to issue driven differences?
The left would take a nice comment by the right and spin it as an underhanded slight. They therefore would leave themselves open to the attack because they point out what they thought the right was attempting to say.

Lee Atwater's genious was in allowing the opposition to hang themselves by attempting to explain their way out of situations. See Any Parallels to the Kerry Camp?

BTW I am a libertarian, not a republican, and I cut my teeth on Atwater politics as a youngster in SC.

Anonymous said...

Checking other blogs for ideas and came across yours. Nice job. If you get a chance stop by. Vietnam in Pictures ---Jack---