Friday, August 01, 2003

A truly excellent article from Salon.com, explores what the focus ought to be, concerning the preidential campaign. This article is worth discussing, as it deals with strategy. I like the idea of focusing on the phoniness of Bush. How can one argue with it? Here is part of the article from Salon.com (glad I finally shelled out 30 bucks for the subscription):

Democrats can't win in '04 by fighting Bush on the issues alone. They have to convince Americans that their warrior president is a phony in a flyboy suit.

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By Jeremy Heimans and Tim Dixon

Aug. 1, 2003 | Rep. Dick Gephardt made his best and perhaps his only significant contribution to defeating George Bush in 2004 last month, when he derided the president's "bring 'em on" challenge to Iraqi attacks on American forces. "Enough of the phony macho rhetoric," Gephardt shot back. The Missouri Democrat's line was more than just padded flight-suit envy. His jibe hints at the strategy that could put a Democrat back in the White House: convincing Americans that Bush is a phony.

The Democrats can only win if they succeed in undermining the president's greatest strength: his credibility as a decisive and authentic wartime leader. The problem is that in such uncertain times many Americans instinctively can't and don't want to believe that George Bush is screwing them. Until the Democrats change how voters view Bush the man, and then link that to a broader critique of his administration, the Democrats will have a hard time punching through.

In 2000, the Bush machine played skillful personality politics to successfully paint Al Gore as inauthenthic, a poser and a "chronic exaggerator." Despite Bush's far more serious exaggerations on Iraq and his tax cuts, he is still riding high on key measures of political character such as trustworthiness (70 percent of Americans say he is trustworthy), personal strength and, spectacularly, as someone who cares about the concerns of ordinary Americans. Even Bush's State of the Union Iraq/uranium lie probably won't much change this, when all the talk about who's to blame is focused on supporting characters and not the man himself.

The core problem with the current Democratic strategy is that a piecemeal, issue-by-issue attack on the policies of the administration will not resonate while Bush retains the esteem and even admiration of many ordinary Americans. And a contest based on issues will only get harder as Bush moves from shoring up his base to moderating his image in the lead-up to next fall. Expect the policy lines to blur amid a renewed focus on domestic issues and a revival of the language and imagery of compassionate conservatism.

The democrats' greatest danger is to run an issues-based campaign that becomes a ritualized liberal/conservative slanging match. Progressives who are flabbergasted at the audacity of Bush's agenda seem to think that simply communicating Bush's policy failures is enough. But this approach will play straight into Karl Rove's chubby hands and trap Democrats in the defensive, dithering posture that has defined them since the Bush presidency began.

So no matter how bad Bush's actual record may be, Democrats simply can't count on fighting the upcoming election on substantive policy grounds alone.

The question is what communications strategy will wear down the personal appeal of Bush as effectively as the "weak and indecisive" tag slapped on Jimmy Carter, and the "out of touch" tag on Bush's father. What characterization can the Democrats use to undermine Bush's image and his greatest perceived strengths? The one label that will stick and could work to undermine the positive personal perceptions of the president comes from Gephardt's line last week: George Bush is a phony. It works, because it has a ring of truth about it -- on everything from Iraq, to the economy, to tax cuts, to Bush's character and personal history.

The Bush-is-a-phony message can work because it starts where the average voter already is -- with a positive view of Bush. It recognizes that Bush may very well look tough, decisive, patriotic, responsible and compassionate. But it asks those voters to look beyond the image.

Sound nasty? It is. But expect the same from Republicans, whomever the Democrats nominate. And this time around, the Democrats clearly cannot run on the perception that Bush is not sufficiently experienced, bright or interested in the job. Those issues have been effectively neutralized as Americans have become used to seeing Bush as their commander in chief at a time of deep insecurity and fear.

Accusing Bush of incompetence will sometimes work -- it's getting airtime on the Iraq issue now. But the incompetence tag is both less damaging and less resonant for the public given the administration's skills in regulating what the public sees of Bush -- with those twice-a-year press conferences and endlessly flattering photo-ops. Besides, the White House will arrange an endless lineup of fall guys to prevent responsibility from reaching the president. CIA director George Tenet was only the first to take a hit. (On Wednesday, Bush finally took responsibility for the State of the Union fib, but only after weeks of his administration pointing the finger of blame at everybody but the president.)