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June 09, 2005

Wednesday afternoon qb'ing: How do we fight back?

Thad, John Emerson, and others have convinced me that John Kerry should have fought back harder and faster against the Swift Boat Liars.

Now I'm wondering what exactly the Kerry campaign should have done. I'm talking tactics. How do you defeat a determined, well-funded brigade of scandal mongers.

Obviously, Kerry could have gone on TV sooner, and more often to denounce the SBLs more forcefully.

Maybe we could have done more to disseminate the right talking points. The SBLs were easily debunked by anyone with a passing familiarity with the case.

If Kerry was going to release the records, the campaign should have done more to "sell the sizzle." I think the people who support his decision to sit on the records are envisioning an alternative in which Kerry just dumped the records into the public domain and sat back. That would have been stupid. But what if the campaign had really talked up those records? The attitude of the campaign was that all the evidence was already out there and these records didn't prove anything that wasn't amply proven in the public domain. They were right, of course, but that didn't matter.

What if the Kerry campaign had "marketed" those records as the "smoking gun" that would prove the Swift Boat Veterans to be liars? That would have been an exciting story.

Can anyone think of historical examples, recent or otherwise, in which a candidate has dealt successfully with a Swift Boat-like smear campaign? How did they do it?

What else should the campaign have done? These are strategic questions that we need to brainstorm now--otherwise we'll just keep falling into the same old shoddy traps.


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Clinton had something called "The War Room". One of his principles was to get an answer out during the same news cycle, so that smears and spin didn't have a day or two to sink in. He really had people sitting by the phone -- it was a Carville project, I think.

Second would have been pro-active research so that responses to possible charges were sitting on the shelf waiting to be used when needed.

Third was to have some media savvy guy like Carville who could, as much as possible, turn things around -- do a counterattack and put the other side on the defensive. You can't always do that, but it's the only way to win -- If you're always responding and letting them control the agenda, you will lose.

A final thing is really big -- building up an alternative media so that the word will get out. Despite repeated Liberal Media allegations, the media bias is anti-Democrat and anti-liberal. (Anyone who claims otherwise is either a liar are stupid.) With either a liberal media or an honest, intelligent media, the SBV's allagations would have been punched full of holes when first reported and in every subsequent report, and the story line would have been "Lies about Kerry" rather than "New Allegations Agaist Kerry".

I advocate a new national newspaper, new national TV and cable networks, beefing up Air America so it reaches everywhere, and a mega-blog that pays for content. About $500, 000, 000 startup, but there'd be return on the investment though I doubt it would be the most profitable possible use of the money.

Had Kerry and his people been as politically clever as Bush and his, I think the winning image of the campaign would have been Kerry at a podium with a folder containing his war records, holding it up and asking, "Here's my records... Mr. President show us yours."

That would have to be followed by a round of Democrats bringing up the President's questionable war record and asking the American people if they really want a coward in office...

Does it matter if the President is really a coward... That's not the point. Campaigning is ugly and dirty. Democrats need to learn, or just remember, how to fight dirty. If it was enough to be a war hero, then Bob Dole might have become President.

And I really agree with John... An firm grasp of news cycles and how to properly use them is crucial to controlling the conversation.

Given the recent revelation of Kerry's grades and the truth of the Swift Boat Liars for Falsehood distorting his war record, I think it could have easily been won by releasing this stuff two years ago. Really. Why not show the commanders condemning him now were supportive of him then? Who gives a damn what his grades were?

The best defense is always the truth. Since Kerry wasn't willing to use that, he was left without ammunition. As close as the election was, this was his chance to be President.


Dear lord, it's so easy to beat SBL and their ilk. Using simple and direct language, describe who they *really* are and exactly what they doing. Liberal amounts of humor will magically appear; the enemy is ridiculed; done deal.

Modern pander-ific pols -- Kerry being the perfect example -- have lost all ability to speak under pressure with candor, spontenaity, and a devasting dollop of mirth. George Galloway's senate appearance displayed how utterly dead plain talk is in American politics.

Start with calling them liars. No weasel words:
" These men are lying about my records, on behalf of a draft-dodging AWOL maggot. The guy who starts off with 'I served in Vietnam with Kerry... - didn't - he's lying, recruited by one of Nixon's ciminals to lie. Others of these are my former commanders, who praised me during Vietnam. Now I'm supposedly 'Unfit for Command'. Are they lying now, or then? Still others are people who resent me, and have no qualms with hurting America...."

He had to do that, because it was a direct attack on a core reason to vote for Kerry.

People don't care who the SBVT really was. People don't want to hear the truth about Bush. Maybe what I see around me is skewed because I live in a solid red state. Otherwise intelligent people automatically dismiss any criticism of Bush as a looney liar or someone who "blames America" for everything. Otherwise progressive people feel like we're in a war against Islam that has been going on for 1000 years. Jewish people keep trying to explain to me how the United States is a Christian country and that of course it has the right to implement a Christian version of Shari'a. To say "it's so easy to beat the SBL" comes from (no offense) someone probably preaching to the choir.
Bush was eminently beatable in 2000, if Gore had had personality, and had Kerry been the frontrunner then, I have no doubt that we would never have heard of "hanging chads". That being said, Bush is one of the most charismatic Presidents we've ever had. Maybe more so than JFK. Certainly more so than anyone since, including Reagan. (Reagan just had the additional quality of being likeable) People here in Georgia would give Bush their first born (but not the unborn - that would be wrong) and they don't even know why.
IMNSHO, 2008 is a new day, a new chance. It's not the time to refight battles from 2000 or 2004. No matter who runs from the Republican side, he won't be as polarizing as Bush. Loyalty to Bush will only give a slight edge to his Republican successor, the way Bush I was thrust into office briefly. My only worry is what they have up their sleeves. I can't believe they don't have some plan for 2008 in the works.

Georgia isn't a good vantage point. Georgia is hopeless. People talk about a Democratic Southern strategy, but you can't key your campaign to your most hopeless areas. (The South is actually worse than it looks, because the Democratic votes that they are are mostly black, and the South isn't going to get any more black than it is.)

One of the most important reasons for the need for a new media would be to make sure that thoughtless, kneejerk people who are reflexively conservative from ignorance would at least now and then overhear an opposing point of view. There's really no battle of ideas in many places.

The information most people passively get is right-wing. A lot of "conservative" voters are not really engaged in politics at all, but just repeating stuff they hear around them the way you support the local football team. An extraordinary proportion of Americans have never heard the liberal or Democratic point of view at all, to the point of being completely misinformed about mant important facts.

This is all just splendidly interesting, but also contemptible. What irritates, and sometimes infuriates, me, is that this is of a piece with the entirety of the anti-Kerry position taken by people who pretended to support him when it counted, but made sure to add, whenever possible, that he was certainly not their "ideal," "preferred" or "perfect" candidate, and that his campaign wasn't being run to their Sun Tzu-informed satisfaction.

Now such critics claim, damnably, vindication by Kerry's loss: "He should have been more populist -- been more hostile -- been more overtly antiwar! Why didn't he listen to *me*? If only he'd...."

No. They are wrong. There is no strategic, or tactical, or technical, or practical solution: John Kerry lost because the American people made the wrong choice.

"If they'd only heard the truth from our corrupted media-" No. They made the wrong choice.

"If John Kerry had only taken the stand that I wanted him to take on-" No. They made the wrong choice.

"If Kerry had been married to somebody diff-" No. They made the wrong choice.

"And the Republicans told all those lies-" Yes. And the American people accepted those lies -- whether or not they believed them. They made the wrong choice.

"Kerry shouldn't have been photographed windsurfing or-" No. They made the wrong choice.

Our fellow citizens chose the man whose Secretary of Defense expressly altered the Pentagon's target evaluation criteria to reduce the weight accorded the risk of noncombatant casualties. They chose the man whose Vice President's most significant achievement in Congress was the enhancement of the United states' first-strike nuclear capability. They chose the side that
advocates, in the most specific terms, the use of nuclear weapons. They made the wrong -- the immoral -- choice.

John Kerry did not fail us. We all failed him.

I don't think refutation of the charges against him did any good. He DID release documents refuting almost everything conceivably refutable. Proof is useless for convincing those who are either incapable or disinclined to process it.

What was necessary was an attack - a blistering expose of the filth that was arrayed against him. But that sort of thing can't be done by the candidate, or even the campaign really. It is too easily portrayed as mental instability. You can't have Muskie crying in the snow. We need hatchet-men.

George Bush, even more than other Republicans, uses hatchet-men to do his dirty work. He uses them freely even on other Republicans when they challenge him. The attacks never come from him, though. He (or more likely Rove) recognized that Americans don't like negative campaigners, but that negative campaigning is by far the most effective.

We now have some avenues via which we can launch such attacks. They are not really up to it though. Air America, The Daily show, Media Matters all have standards. That won't get the job done. I think we need to sink to their level or we will always lose. O'Niell can't just be a Nixon crony, he has to be a widely recognized, unindicted, Watergate conspirator. He wasn't? Let him prove it! Load these people up with non-negatable accusations. Let them waste THEIR time and money. Let them prove that they are not alcoholics, adulterers, cheaters etc. Hell, the right had no qualms about accusing the Democratic President of multiple murders. We can maintain our moral superiority by not going quite that far.

OK, so the American people made the wrong choice. That's obvious. I think the point of this discussion is, what can we do to minimize the chances of that happening again? How can we improve our message so that the American people make the right choice?

I think the rap battle at the end of 8 Mile between Rabbit (Eminem) and the dude from "Free World" could teach us a lot about how to respond to charges.

At the Swift Boat level of discourse, it's not about truth, it's about style. It's a game of Dozens, no more, no less. If someone said during a game of Dozens that your mama was fat, and your response was to say that "actually, her dress size is below average for women of her age," you'd get laughed off the playground.

When someone wants to play a game, you've got to play the game. That's what people respect.

I don't agree with Rasselas - John Kerry *did* fail us, and failed us magnificently. If he could not beat this president, this administration, with all its lies, failures and corruption, then he deserved to lose.

Tax cuts for the already-wealthy. Exploding deficits. Repeatedly nominating right-wingnut activist judges. Team Bush's actual record is abysmal, and John Kerry should have been able to defeat Bush based upon the actual record.

If John Kerry could not defeat THAT, then he should NEVER have been nominated.

The Democtatic Party needs, desperately needs, new blood.

Bring me Barack Obama, please.

"No. They are wrong. There is no strategic, or tactical, or technical, or practical solution: John Kerry lost because the American people made the wrong choice. "

Isn't it necessary for a candidate to recognize that a huge chunk of the electorate is really stupid? Republicans only thinly veil their approval of duping the stupid to achieve victory (death tax!). Shouldn't Democrats do the same? Are not informed Democrats justified in blaming Kerry for not running a sufficiently manipulative campaign?

You can't blame people for being stupid. For the majority, stupidity was not a matter of choice. You can blame John Kerry for not manipulating stupid people into voting for him though.

Coopt and counterattack. You could possibly coopt the SBVT by reframing their initiative as seeking full disclosure from all candidates and then agreeing with them and asking the rest of America to stand with Kerry and the SBVT in demanding Bushs military records. The SBVT couldn't really disagree with this unless they admitted they did not want Bush's records revealed. It's an attack not a defense so it is not open to the charge of flip-flopping.

Rasselas, "contemptible" is pretty strong language. *********** REDACTED *************

If you had bothered to read what I wrote, you would have noted that I didn't say any of the things you claimed. There's nothing intelligent or productive in your rant; as far as you can tell, you're just blaming the voters and are angry at anyone who does anything else.

Kerry failed us, and even more so, the media.

"Isn't it necessary for a candidate to recognize that a huge chunk of the electorate is really stupid?"

Some candidates and their remoras may take comfort in that position, because it leaves the political process some shred of dignity that would disappear if one answered "No, just willfully immoral." It may be more acceptable -- for some, I guess -- to grub for the votes of imbeciles than those of people who vote for a man who thinks Jesus Christ endorsed capital punishment.

As for the statement that "[i]f [John Kerry] could not beat this president, this administration, with all its lies, failures and corruption, then he deserved to lose," I fail to understand the counter-argument. The American people chose those lies, those failures and all that corruption. Does it become acceptable to vote for such things -- and the deaths that weren't mentioned -- if one says that the alternative isn't sufficiently new blood?

"Contemptible" is strong language, but it was directly more generally than at any particular post or poster.

Now I'm wondering what exactly the Kerry campaign should have done. I'm talking tactics. How do you defeat a determined, well-funded brigade of scandal mongers.

What he should've done was not use his military service as a campaign talking point.

Rasselas, your blind devotion to John Kerry, and your need to sit in the seat of judgment, are leading you over a cliff. The stuff we're saying isn't avant-garde stuff; John Edwards says it too (using Cahill as a proxy for kerry). The Kerry campaign SCREWED UP. They didn't even try.

You have no apparent interest in or understanding of politics. And you seem to believe that Kerry was much more anti-war than he actually was.

Alan Levy -- if they were going to use Kerry's war service as a talking point, they had to be fully prepared for massive attacks, and they had to have a counterattack planned.

On the specific issue here -- the rumor was being spread during the election that Kerry had received a dishonorable discharge from the military. Releasing the records would have settled that one.

To me, blaming Kerry's loss on the Swift Boat Liars is like Gore blaming his loss on Nader. It shouldn't be coming down to that and the real problem is our party's and our candidate's failure to articulate a compelling vision. Kerry and Gore come off as hedgers and panderers. We present ourselves as am amalgam of interest groups and policy hand-outs rather than as a principled moral outlook on what government should be and what america should be.

It's obvious in hindsight there needed to be a stronger more outraged and louder response to the Swift Boat attack, but I really think that's not our main problem.

When you're talking electoral strategy and tactics during a single election, things like the poor response to the SBV's can be decisive. There's no "main problem." Everything that prevented getting the 50% + 1 is important.

I agree with you about the general weakness of the Democrats' presentation, but a more effective campaign could have won the election even so.

Same with Gore-Bush. Any number of things defeated Gore, but Nader was definitely one of them.

John has made so very good points, especially about the war room, rapid response teams and message management.

There has been a great deal of discussion about the lack of DNC message mangement at Kos and the lack of clarity of the message and the lack of spokespersons with good debating skills.

The GOP had their talking points down and were machine like in their presentation, no matter who was speaking.

They used focus groups to refine their message and tweak their verbiage and had selected spokespersons to make the talk show and news programs, which were coordinated through a booking agent.

They presented a unified message with people who had a schooled stage presence. You could hear the ghost of Richard Nixon laughing his ass off saying... we learned... Kennedy got me but we got you!

The dems on the other hand had a lot of well meaning and sincere but very ineffective people who weren't prepared, talked off topic, fell into the traps that the white house had set up for them with the talking heads and the results showed it.

It was painful to watch. They didn't stand a chance against that kind of media on-slaught. They just did a better job.

If you want to figure out how to respond to the SBV attacks on Kerry, the first step is to realize that the specifics of the attacks were largely irrelevant. The problem was Kerry’s active anti-war activity; as soon as that was widely known, a huge portion of the population was going to have a problem with him and his record. It’s very hard to run as a war hero and an anti-war protester at the same time, especially when a lot of people still have strong feelings about the war.

This problem was entirely foreseeable, and could probably have been dealt with—IF Kerry had a campaign message-manager who was competent—like Carville, or Atwater, or Rove. Instead, the Kerry campaign walked right into the trap and closed the door behind them; Kerry played up his Viet Nam service, and never addressed the obvious question—“why didn’t you support the troops after you got back?” That question had an answer, but Kerry never gave it coherently. And it was of a piece with so much else—“I voted for it before I voted against it” and so forth.

"What he should've done was not use his military service as a campaign talking point."

Posted by: Alon Levy

Irrelevant, IMHO. The Siwftliars were already remobilized, the book being printed, during the primaries. Any Democratic Vietnam veteran would have been trashed; any Democratic non-Vietnam veteran would have been trashed.

These people don't care about the truth. They can lie through their teeth and get away with it. Think of yourself in your whinest, bitchiest, most self-indulgent temper tantrum modd, and that's how these people operate, as a delibeate matter. Because they can get away with it.

If I ever run for office, one of my preliminary steps would be to hire some private investigators to investigate *ME* and see how much dirt they can dig up. That would give me a heads up on what opponents might plausibly smear me with.
Then, with a selected team expert in damage control, I'd review everything the first group found *PLUS* I'd go over my life story with anything in my past I can think of that they didn't find,to preemptively dredge up all the skeletons in my closet so we can prepare responses should any of them emerge during the campaign.

[One reason for the two groups is that there's a difference between "what someone reasonably can find" and "what I need to protect myself from" And in prioritizing things, it's useful to know how likely (for example) a letter printed a decade ago in a gay newspaper is going to emerge...

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