I write to a friend in Maryland this week, asking her how the presidential election is going there.
“I have no idea,” she e-mails in return. “Maryland, typically a Democratic state, has elected a Republican governor for the first time. Judging from the editorial letters in the Baltimore Sun, I’d say the voters are evenly divided. Some have criticized Bush for sending young folks in harm’s way, for lying. Today’s editorial letters criticize the Bush administration’s inept handling of 9/11, disagreeing with Cheney’s recent remarks. Others agree with your [California] governor [Schwarzenegger] and have chastised the Democrats for being economic ‘girlie-men.’ My gut instincts tell me that most are going to vote for Bush because of the war: they feel he started it and don’t want to change leaders in midstream.” She closes glumly: “It’s pretty grim to think of another four years with arrogant, idiotic Bush.”
If this is the feeling in Maryland, where Mr. Kerry led Mr. Bush by 13 points, 53 percent to 40 percent, in the last poll one month ago, what must it be in more contested parts of the country?
Decidedly downbeat, at least for Democrats.
A definite gloom has spread around the anti-Bush camp following the Republican convention, and Mr. Kerry’s Awful August, and Mr. Bush’s opening of a respectable lead in a race that has been virtually dead-even for months and months and months. It’s not resignation, not yet, but it’s beginning to have the feel of desperation. The Democratic e-mail lists are full of notations as to “what the Kerry people did wrong,” along with suggestions about how they might make it right…quick, and in a hurry.
As for me, I suspect it is not so much what the Kerry people have done wrong as it is what the Bush people have done right. They have prepared and so far carried out an election strategy that fits both their world view and the realities of campaigning in the 21st century. The Kerry campaign—flailing about—has so far appeared to do neither.
Forget, for a moment, the ground over which this campaign has so far been fought—Swift Boat attacks and National Guard service and Iraq wars and the resumés of the president and the Massachussetts senator—and see how it has been fought. That is where the lesson lies.
The Bush camp has done two things exceedingly well in this campaign. The first is that they not only have managed to define Mr. Kerry in a negative light (an old trick), but they have defined Mr. Kerry in exactly the negative light where Mr. Bush himself is vulnerable. And so we have the charges that Mr. Kerry has no true principles and bends to the political winds (the infamous “flip-flop” charge) and that Mr. Kerry is a coward in combat (the intimation, among other things, that Mr. Kerry fled from Swift boat battles and wounded himself in order to get out of Vietnam).
The mud has stuck, so much so that it has become inseparable from Mr. Kerry, with no further discussion needed, only reiteration at appropriate times. And therefore, when the Kerry folks finally get around to making these charges against Mr. Bush, the old Southern saying comes into play: when you point a finger at someone, four fingers end up pointing back at you. “See, the president has flip-flopped on winning the war on terrorism!” the Democrats shout. “Yeah, well, you guys ought to know it when you see it,” the Republicans reply, unperturbed.
The second Bush campaign triumph is what might be called the octopus defense whenever challenged on a vulnerable point—a wild flailing of many arms, along with a jettison of obscuring black ink, all designed to mask a rapid turnabout and/or retreat. The Bush response to the recent 60 Minutes report on Bush’s National Guard service record is a good example: instant attacks from various allied sources on the authenticity of memos from Bush’s old commander critical of Bush, attacks on the impartiality of Bush’s accusers (in this case, CBS’ Dan Rather), while at the same time a steady, droning intonation from the Bush camp itself that, after all, this is old stuff and has long ago been discussed, and really has nothing to do with present concerns.
Viewed in tandem and as to effect, the two tactics end in a general assumption that the charges (any charges) against Mr. Kerry must be true because they have been repeated so often, while the charges against Mr. Bush are still in doubt because, after all, they have been denied so vehemently.
Democrats shuffle around in envy, like Jack-Nicholson-as-the-Joker in the first Batman movie, wondering how come their toys don’t work that good. And there is great temptation to adopt the Republican way, at least until the Republicans can be gotten out of the way.
But the problem for Democrats in adopting Republican tactics circa 2004 is that tactics only work in the service of strategy—strategy being where you want to go, while tactics comprising how you get there. And so while beating Republicans at their own game may appear momentarily attractive, it tends to take Democrats further and further away from what is supposed to be Democratic Party ideals (see the Clinton Presidency for the most recent, best examples).
When economic conservatism merged with fundamentalism somewhere in the mid-’90s, it took an interesting tack. The conservatives of an earlier generation believed that they were smarter and their ideas were better, and took great pride and delight in winning over the public in open debate. (Find a tape of the old William F. Buckley show if you’re too young to have lived through those days.) But conservatives today—having taken on the armor of God, so to speak—believe that they are right, and therefore no proof is necessary. At least, that’s how they are presenting themselves.
If one’s goal is a world where a pre-determined truth is implemented, then the Bush campaign tactics of twist-and-shout may make perfect sense. But if one thinks that truth has yet to be determined—and needs working out with human help—then a more thoughtful, reasoned approach is in order.
My Maryland friend is right, it is pretty grim to think of another four years with arrogant, idiotic Bush. But a Bush-inspired America and world—with or without George W. at its helm—is equally frightening. If Democrats want to build a house, they’ve got to find other tools, tempting as it might be to follow the Bush camp’s lead. Picking up a rock generally ends up only in smashed windows all around, regardless of the hand holding.