As the Democratic National Convention gets underway, the Democratic strategy for the fall campaign will become clearer. While the details remain to be seen, it is likely that the strategy will aim to make John Kerry appear to be a centrist and a “unifier,” while leaving the heavy-duty mudslinging to surrogates like Ted Kennedy, Michael Moore, George Soros, and the New York Times. This much, however, is easy to predict. The really interesting feature of the Democratic convention will be the insight it will provide into the Republican strategy for the fall.
As the print media and the television networks cover the convention, they will necessarily ask for commentary from designated Republican representatives. That commentary should yield clues about the plan the GOP has mapped out to eke out a win in November.
Thus far, the Republican counterattack against Kerry has not been dramatically successful. It has kept Kerry from breaking out far in front, though it is not clear in closely-divided America whether he would have been able to do so in any event. It has certainly not established Bush as the consistent leader. Of course, there is a real limit to how much can be accomplished by any advertising campaign on either side. Real conditions and real events establish the terms of the debate, and determine the plausibility of any particular line of argument. Nevertheless, at the margins, the arguments made by each side can have an effect. In a close election, they can be decisive.
So far, Republicans have made two strong attacks against Kerry. The first is that he is on the far left, “the most liberal member of the United States Senate.” The other is that he cannot be trusted because he is a “flip-flopper” who has offered inconsistent (and indeed incoherent) positions on issues ranging from Iraq to gay marriage.
Both of these charges can be (and indeed have been) supported by evidence. The problem is that, in the big picture, they undermine each other. Though tactically tempting in the short run, using both arguments is akin to using no argument at all. John Kerry cannot simultaneously be too much of a left-wing ideologue and too mushy in his opinions. To try to make both arguments at once opens oneself to charges of inconsistency, and leaves voters feeling that one is grasping for straws.
Consequently, a big question of the Democratic convention will be whether Republicans have chosen one argument or the other, and if so, which one.
There are a number of reasons that they would be wise to concentrate on the first of the two, the ideological coloration of Kerry (and of the administration he would bring with him to power). First, of the two, it is the argument that is potentially more telling. Concentrating on Kerry’s flip-flops does not tell a voter anything about whether Kerry wound up on the right or the wrong side in the end. In a perverse way, it may even help Kerry advance his argument that he is a unifier. He can see both sides, and even be on both sides. What’s not to like? On the other hand, his doctrinaire Massachusetts liberalism provides meaty targets. Indeed, for the Republican argument to work, it must be suffused with specific examples of votes and positions that demonstrate Kerry’s broader tendency. This cannot be emphasized too much: Republican strategists cannot assume that the label “liberal” carries as much freight as it did in 1988, when Michael Dukakis was brought down by it. Americans must be reminded on a vote-by-vote basis what exactly liberalism is. A label will not defeat Kerry. A voting record might.
At the same time, unlike “Kerry is inconsistent,” “Kerry is a left-winger” erodes Kerry’s rather absurd claim to be a potential unifier. This is an area where Kerry leaves himself quite vulnerable. His extremist record does not lend itself to claims of bridging the gap in American politics. He has certainly not unified the swift boat captains behind him, who can now be discussed obliquely without frontally challenging Kerry’s military record. And, in the television age, visual images are worth a lot. Republicans would be smart if they committed to organizing a hefty protest everywhere Kerry goes. How much of a unifier can a man be who provokes a rowdy counterdemonstration at every campaign stop? Maybe the red-and-white signs could read “Too liberal for me” and “No to 94% Kerry,” a reference to the Senator’s liberal rating.
Even more essential to sorting out which anti-Kerry theme to emphasize will be how effectively Republicans defend George W. Bush’s presidency. In the end, the election will hinge on whether Americans think Bush did a good enough job to merit reelection. Thus, Republicans must become experts at telling two stories that the elite media has largely frozen out. The first is a positive narrative about the economy—not just the recent improvement in economic statistics but the bigger picture of a President who inherited a recession, faced the economic impact of 9-11, drew up a plan, carried it through, and is beginning to see the results. The statistics without the story will lead to complaints of “too little, too late.” The statistics with the story provides not only a coherent defense, but allows the economic issue to be tied into the national security issue where Bush is stronger.
The second story the President’s supporters must tell is about Iraq. As with the economy, a narrative is better than a snapshot. That narrative would emphasize the known history of Iraq’s WMD; quotes from Clinton, Kerry et al about the dangers posed by Iraq; the positive effects of the liberation of Iraq on Iraqis; and the much ignored “good news” from Iraq today. It would also hammer home two points: Terrorists, including but not limited to al Qaeda, used Iraq as a support base for years, and Bush’s position on WMD is being slowly vindicated. The last two points are better made by the Republican National Committee or by friendly 527s, otherwise Democrats will try to blunt the effectiveness of the ads by drawing the administration into a fight over interpretation of intelligence information. Nevertheless, if someone on Bush’s side does not run an advertisement highlighting the Feith memo or pointing out that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Niger, and asking what John Kerry thinks he meant to use it for, Republicans will deserve to lose in November.
In many ways, the positive half of the Republican campaign will be more difficult to execute than the negative part, because it will be competing with contrary assessments of events by the elite news media. Republicans will have to shape a counter-interpretation, and that will take time to sink in. This week is not too early to begin.
Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.