Beating Bush

BEATING BUSH….I’ve been noodling lately about the best way to make the case against George W. Bush. For starters, there’s the consensus criticism among mainstream analysts: not so much that Bush is a captive of extremist ideology as that he’s simply incompetent. As William Saletan puts it:

The case against President Bush is simple. He sold us his tax cuts as a boon for the economy, but more than three years later, he has driven the economy into the ground. He sold us a war in Iraq as a necessity to protect the United States against weapons of mass destruction, but after spending $200 billion and nearly 1,000 American lives, and after searching the country for more than a year, we’ve found no such weapons.

But that doesn’t really work, does it? Most people still don’t realize how sluggish the economy really is, and the lack of WMD doesn’t faze a lot of people either. This just isn’t going to win a lot of votes.

Andrew Tobias tries a similar tack, with a table showing the change in median household income during the past three administrations:

Bush II

?$1,535

Clinton

+$5,489

Bush I

?$1,314

But that doesn’t work either, mainly, I think, because most Americans don’t truly believe that economic policies have much effect on the economy. Sure, Clinton had restrained, prudent policies, but does that really have anything to do with the fact that the economy did well on his watch? I suspect that most people think it’s just a coincidence, and that anyone who says otherwise is just shilling for their party.

Now, there’s still nothing wrong with hammering away at this stuff, but in the end these are arguments about competence, and if you’re not a policy wonk this kind of argument is just too arid and intellectual to be compelling. Michael Dukakis tried running on competence and got his head handed to him.

(Yeah, yeah, he had other problems too. I learned at least one thing from his campaign: if I’m ever running for president and someone asks me how I’d react if my wife got raped, I’ll avoid responding with a tone deaf discussion of the principles of the American legal system.)

All of which is a windy way of getting around to an obvious point: stump speeches about Bush’s poor performance are all well and good, but the events of the past few days and weeks have demonstrated ? just in case there were any lingering doubts ? that Bush plans to run an intensely negative campaign. And guess what? For all the whining we do every four years about negative campaigning, it works pretty well.

Fine. But if that’s the way the game is going to be played this year, what’s the right response from Kerry? Negative, of course, but what specific negatives should he go after? As any marketing person can tell you, ad campaigns can stretch the facts here and there but they still have to be based on a kernel of truth in order to be effective. The charge against Kerry that he’s a waffler who’s soft on defense may be unfair, but there’s still a kernel of truth there that makes it believable.

So: what’s the best way to make Bush seem either scary, unlikable, or untrustworthy? Forget about trying to turn his charges around and painting him as a waffler or a weakling. It won’t work. His branding in those areas is just too strong.

But Bush does have a couple of core negatives that can probably be exploited:

  • He’s a reckless warmonger who’s going to get a lot of people killed. This doesn’t apply just to Bush, of course, but to all the people around him. It shouldn’t be too hard to find a few video clips that make Bush and his supporters look like slavering warmongers ? Zell Miller provided a good start Wednesday night ? and there’s enough truth in the charge to turn doubts about Bush’s judgment into genuine fears. Basically, Kerry should do to Bush what LBJ did to Goldwater: convince the middle of the country that he can hardly wait to get his finger on the button.

  • He operates in secret and doesn’t tell the truth. Again, there’s enough truth to this that it shouldn’t be too hard to convince people that Bush and his administration are fundamentally secretive and manipulative. Maybe a few clips of John Dean talking about how they remind him of Nixon would work well.

Since I don’t live in Massachusetts I don’t know much about how John Kerry campaigns, but everything I’ve heard about him suggests that in the closing months of a campaign he can throw mud with the best of them. So maybe we’ll see some stuff like this from Kerry (or his surrogates) soon. After all, you don’t bring a knife to a gun fight, do you?