When will we ever learn?
By Ernest Partridge, the
"Carry the battle to them. Don’t let
them bring it to you. Put them on the defensive. And don’t
ever apologize for anything." Harry S Truman
Early in the 2000 Presidential campaign I wrote
to the Democratic National Committee, and to the few individuals
who read my website, and argued that if the Gore-Lieberman
ticket were to win, the Democrats must study the successful
tactics of their opponents and also the failed tactics of
their predecessor candidates – in particular, the Dukakis
campaign of 1988.
Unfortunately, 2000 turned out to be, in several significant
aspects, a re-run of 1988 – so too, 2002. The early stages
of the 2004 campaign suggest that the Democrats are about
to make the same mistakes all over again. In many readily
identifiable respects, they already have.
The Republican know this, and are no doubt thoroughly delighted.
As for the Democrats, when will they ever learn?
Among the supporters and advisors to the Democratic Party
are some very bright people: notably, lawyers and academics.
Thus it is a mystery how these brilliant people can be so
practically stupid, failing to learn from their mistakes.
And so, one more time, here are a few campaign rules which,
I am confident, would significantly improve the chances of
a Democratic victory in November, 2004.
Do not allow the opposition to define your candidate.
It is much easier to defeat a distorted caricature than the
authentic honorable and capable candidate. And so, the GOP
successfully portrayed Al Gore as humorless, stiff, “unlikeable,”
self-promoting, and above all, dishonest. They said that he
claimed to have invented the internet (he never made the claim)
and that he claimed to have “discovered” Love Canal (false
again). These and numerous additional false accusations were
made time and again, with feeble denials at best, until they
came to be accepted as “conventional wisdom.” In fact, the
caricatured Gore (humorless, stiff, aloof, etc.) was a far
cry from the witty, charming and personable individual known
to his friends and associates.
And now it begins again. How often have we heard that the
apparent Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean, is “another
George McGovern” – i.e., an unelectable “wacko” fringe liberal.
Worse still, Dean’s fellow Democrats – his pre-nomination
rivals – are piling on with these labels and thus doing the
GOP’s dirty work.
In point of fact, Howard Dean is arguably the most mainstream,
even “conservative,” of the Democratic candidates, as his
record of Vermont governor testifies. (See Rosenfeld
Wesley Clark has also been the subject of “redefinition,”
as dishonest, wily and unscrupulously ambitious. Interestingly,
among the Democratic contenders, Dean and Clark seem to be
the targets of the most determined efforts of redefinition
by the GOP. Presumably because these two are the most formidable
potential opponents of Bush.
If ever there were a politician vulnerable to negative characterization,
it is George Bush. So why aren’t the Democrats hard at work
defining him? Hell, there isn’t even a need to
concoct a list of disagreeable and disqualifying personal
qualities (as the GOP did with Gore) – the authentic qualities
of the man are more than enough.
The prime rule of candidate definition is “get to it as early
as possible and hammer it in” – as once again, the Republicans
are doing and the Democrats are not.
Disband the circular firing squad and keep your eyes
on the prize. It’s happened before, and now it’s happening
again: the rivals for the nomination are beating each other
up so mercilessly that the nomination may, at length, not
be worth the winning.
Instead of trying to convince us that “my rivals can’t beat
Bush,” much better to say “I have the stuff to beat Bush and
furthermore will better serve the American people, and this
is why,” and then the focus should be relentlessly on Bush’s
personal disqualifications and his failed policies.
Before the nomination is settled in the primaries, the Democrats
have a golden opportunity to use the “free media” of primary
and debate coverage to make their case against Bush and the
GOP. If they are so foolish as to use that time to diminish
each other and the eventual candidate, then perhaps they deserve
to lose in November -- except that the alternative is far
Hit early and hit hard – and with a simple and direct
message. Right after the recent despicable GOP ad
was aired, suggesting that the Democrats were undermining
Bush’s “war against terra,” Wesley Clark shot back: “I’m not
critical of President Bush because he’s attacking terrorists;
I’m critical of the president because his is not attacking
terrorists.” Excellent! Simple,
compelling, and aimed directly at the nerve of Bush’s accusation.
And it was delivered by a soldier whose patriotism could not
plausibly be questioned.
Employ tactical judo – use the enemy's strength to your
advantage. Here’s an example: the “mighty media Wurlitzer”
has been blasting a message of “fear and trembling” ever since
9/11, with the implied message that the Flyboy-in-Chief is
best qualified to protect us from “the evildoers.” So now
the Democrats should repeat, over-and-over-and-over: “do you
feel safer than you did four years ago?” (Yeah, I know, in
1984 Reagan said similarly, "are you better off than
you were four years ago?" All the better). If that
question, "do you feel safer?" gets lodged in the
collective electorate cranium, then every time the GOP tries
to put the fear of Osama into us, it will backfire, as Joe
Nascar and Sally Soccermom reflect, “yeah, I’m still scared
– so why hasn’t the Prez done something these past four years
to protect us?”
Another case of media bombast turned sour: somehow (no thanks
to the Dems PR genius), Dubya’s “Mission Accomplished” landing
on the Abe Lincoln has morphed from a moment of triumph to
a GOP embarrassment and a national joke. It is also a golden
opportunity for the Democrats to remind the public of Dubya’s
“flight” from his military obligation. Don’t expect to see
those flight-deck photos in the GOP campaign ads. Maybe the
Dems will use it to advantage. Ditto the “turkey flight” to
Baghdad, if the Democratic campaign honchos are sufficiently
clever and resourceful.
Finally, the Democrats should pound on the message
that, lacking substantive and compelling issues, the GOP must
turn to personal smears. If the Republicans are successfully
defined as vicious character assassins, then all the millions
that they pour into attack ads will turn back on the attackers.
"Tactical judo." We've all seen this happen,
and spectacularly so. The millions of dollars of public money
spent on Ken Starr's "Bubba hunt," scarcely dented
Clinton, and instead led to the downfall of Newt Gingrich,
Bob Livingston, and to Democratic gains in Congress.
In general, in the face of both the media’s subservience and
Bush’s accumulating quarter-billion dollar war chest, the
Democrats might look for solace to the Russians. For seventy
years, the Soviet government had total control of the press
and the airwaves, and yet for the most part, the Soviet people
came to believe none of it. Instead, they listened to and
read foreign sources – at times, at great personal peril.
In addition, having been denied access to the airwaves, presses,
or even copy machines, the dissidents circulated their news
and opinions by samizdat -- typed and handwritten manuscripts.
The opposition today is far better off with the internet and
computer media – and it appears that we will, at last, soon
have some progressive radio and cable news networks.
The public is beginning to wise-up to the propaganda mills
that were once the diverse and free media envied the world
over. The compelling strategy of the Democrats, then, is to
poison the well of GOP propaganda by discrediting the captive
media. The public has been fed a stream of confirmable lies
by that media (e.g., Iraqi WMDs, the Saddam/Osama connection,
etc.). Time to remind the public of what they were told “before”
and how subsequent events have revealed the lies. Direct quotes
from the Bushistas are especially effective.
Most people hate to be suckered and lied to, and they can’t
abide hypocrisy. The Bush Administration is the captive of
con-men, liars and hypocrites – all of whom are in deadly
fear of being found out. To avoid which, they turn up the
volume of The Mighty Wurlitzer, and look to the likes of FOX,
O’Reilly and Rush to implore the public to pay no attention
to the man behind the curtain. However impressive in its scope
and audacity, the GOP facade rests upon a shaky edifice at
best. The evidence of the Bush gang’s avarice, deception,
mendacity and hypocrisy is in plain sight for all to see.
Yet half the population refuses to believe what they see.
The essential question before us is whether or not the opposition
has the insight, craft and determination to direct the public’s
attention to the rot and corruption at the base of the Bush
Making the Case vs. Selling the Product. As
noted earlier, the Democrats’ brain-trust is heavily populated
with lawyers and professors, while the GOP draws its talent
from the marketplace – from commerce and advertising. Thus
the Democrats are inclined to approach the electorate as if
they were in a courtroom or a seminar room. The Republicans
treat the voter as if s/he were walking on to a used car lot.
The result? The Democrats win the arguments, and the Republicans
win the elections.
As much as it distresses this old professor to say so, the
public at large is much more susceptible to sales pitches
than it is to arguments. Even so, there are a lot of good
PR experts, sales persons, and motivational psychologists
in the Democrats’ camp. They should be utilized, but not without
moral restraint. The unscrupulousness of GOP campaign tactics
can be used against them. Their basic strategy is one of distraction
and misdirection: images in place of issues, trivia in place
of substance, and the distortion and manipulation of language.
Thus their message focuses on gay marriage, flag burning,
tax relief, the display of the Ten Commandments, rather than
economic and social justice, war and peace, education, fiscal
responsibility, equal opportunity.
It is thus the task of the Democrats’ “sales force” to honorably
“sell” a message which is ultimately founded on scientific
facts, on common-sense, on conventional morality, on justice,
and on the rational self-interest of the public.
Finally, stay on message! Once again, the scholar’s
inclination is the politician’s undoing. Scholars love to
search far and wide for implications and connections. They
point out complications behind apparent simplicity. Theirs
is a vocabulary of “and then what?” and “yes, but...”
The voter craves simplicity. The successful politician knows
this, and gives the voter what he wants.
The Democrats have a rich assortment of issues, and that very
variety could prove to be counter-productive. So they must
pick the hottest items, simplify the message, and repeat and
repeat and repeat. About the time that the candidates get
sick and tired of repeating “the same-old-same-old,” is the
time the public may begin to “get it.”
The GOP has profited mightily from “The Big Lie:” repeated
constantly until it is widely believed to be true. Witness
FOX TV's claim to be “fair and balanced,” Bill O’Reilly’s
“no-spin zone,” Rush Limbaugh’s inventions followed
by “folks, I’m not making this up.” But most notorious of
all: the lies about Saddam’s alleged weapons of mass destruction,
and the alleged Saddam/Al Qaeda connection. The latter Big
Lie has led two-thirds of the American public to believe that
Saddam Hussein was involved with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
And yet, on September 17, Bush himself said: "We've had
no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with Sept. 11."
In response, the Democrats would be wise to consider the efficacy
of “The Big Truth.” Just as lies can, with constant unrefuted
repetition, be widely believed to be true, so too can significant
truths come to be widely believed if they are constantly repeated.
So the Democrats must abandon the “laundry lists” of issues,
and instead repeatedly pound on the “hot button issues.”
Bush is a liar. He is an international outlaw. He and his
gang are robbing you of your wealth, your future, and the
future of your children. He has brought our beloved country
into disrepute the world over. And he is sending our
kids abroad to fight and die for Cheney's Halliburton and
his Daddy's Carlisle Group.
Say it, over and over and over again, simply and starkly –
until it begins to get through.
These few simple rules, I am convinced, can lead the Democrats
to victory – not only to the White House, but also in the
Congress and the state houses.
But if they repeat the same mistakes and lose, so shall we
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer
in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He
publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly)
and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers"