He’s Got Issues… The American Prospect’s Michael Tomasky has a smart piece which he dubs “a unified theory of everything that explains why Democrats always get outfoxed.” His basic argument is that because polls show most voters prefer Democratic positions on most issues (say, health care), Democratic consultants naturally advise candidates to run issue-reliant campaigns. Republicans, on the other hand, know their policies aren’t that popular, but rather than run away from them, they turn them into illustrations of the candidate’s personal character. This helps explain why Bush’s resolute support of the Iraq war makes him popular even with people who don’t necessarily support the war.

Over at The Decembrist, Mark Schmitt uses Tomasky’s insight to analyze a key flaw in the Kerry campaign: the lack of connection between Kerry the person (his character, political philosophy etc.) and the issues he talks about. Schmitt writes:

If I were running the issues department of the Kerry campaign, or any campaign, the sign above my desk would not be James Carville’s “It’s the Economy Stupid”: my sign would say, “It’s not what you say about the issues, it’s what the issues say about you.” That is, as a candidate, you must choose to emphasize issues not because they poll well or are objectively our biggest problems, but because they best show the kind of person you are, and not just how you would deal with that particular issue, but others yet to rear their heads. The best illustration of that is John McCain. The most admired political figure achieved his status in large part by his crusade for campaign finance reform. I’ve seen all the polls on this for seven or eight years, and “campaign finance reform,” as an issue, is of interest to at most 5% of the public. I’d like for it to be otherwise, but it’s not. And yet, for McCain, campaign finance reform is the perfect issue. It’s tells a story about his independence, and his persistence, and it gives him a populist message without having to embrace more liberal economic policies. Clinton’s much-derided “micro-initiatives” of the mid-1990s likewise sent a message about who he was: responsible, not extreme, neither a lover of government for its own sake nor a nihilist like Newt Gingrich. The insignificance of his gestures was a potent message in itself, and saved his presidency….

I don’t think the problem with Kerry is that he talks about issues when he should be talking about character. That was Al Gore’s problem. I think the problem is that the Kerry brain has split into an issues half, and a character half, and the two sides aren’t communicating. The character half controlled the convention, and focused on Vietnam. Fine, but what did that say about how he would deal with Iraq? And the issues half has plans — entirely good ones, even for Iraq. But those proposals don’t reinforce any sense of the kind of person Kerry is, and how he would cope in a crisis….

The issues and scheduling side of the campaign has to stop picking an issue of the day, based on the polls. It has to start trying to choose some issues that really emphasize whatever it is that they want to say about Kerry as a person that contrasts him to Bush (honest, brave, forward-seeing, smart, common-sense, independent, cares-about-ordinary-people — pick one and reinforce it) and then use those issues to tell that story over a period of a week or more. And where they want to attack Bush on either character or issues, pick a point that best emphasizes a single point that they want to emphasize to draw the contrast with Kerry. That means, among other things, saying no to all the issue-advocacy groups that are besieging the campaign, brandishing polls and begging Kerry to devote a day to their cause.

Paul Glastris

Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.