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Thursday, May 08, 2003  

Do it again?


ABC's The Note, with an assist from Mike Allen of the Washington Post says:

Does the national security issue loom so big that Democrats will NEVER get back to the center enough to win?

-cut-

A senior White House official said Democrats were making a mistake by trying to draw more attention to an image that Bush's aides see as emblematic of his strength on national security. 'This is not an issue that Democrats want to keep alive,' the official said. 'We're happy to argue with them about defense — any day.

A Republican leadership aide on Capitol Hill said the questions being raised by Democrats were 'uncomfortable,' but noted that the discussion 'at least means they're not talking about Medicare or the economy.'

Several senior Democrats agreed that the dispute is a loser for them. 'It was live on CNN for four hours,' a Senate Democratic strategist said. 'You can't pay enough for that. Who cares about a few stories later?'

One Democrat moaned yesterday as he watched cable news programs replay hours of footage of Bush on the carrier, with audio about Democratic complaints. 'I'm watching him get high-fived and buzz the tower again,' the Democrat said. 'The White House should have thought of this controversy themselves.'

-cut-

Along these lines, a senior Administration official told The Note: "The more time he wastes talking about defense, the more time he hurts the Democrats and reinforces the public's positive perceptions of the president."

"'Do it again do it again do it again,' is our message to Senator Byrd."

The Democrats are "doing things that make their base happy, but alienate the center."



This snippet can be read on several levels. First, the "senior Administration official" may have a point. If national security is Bush's best issue, and if the Democrats keep putting it front and center, then that's good for Bush and bad for the Democrats. One other way to read it is as a classic smokescreen- the senior administration official was speaking with the intent of scaring the Democrats away from talking about national security.


I'm not sure which one is right. I have been advocating for some time that the Democrats need to speak up on national security and that their failure to do so was one of the primary causes of their electoral losses of 2002. I don't think they can duck the issue again. That said, there are a bunch of ways to frame it. It may be necessary to pull back to a level of abstraction which allows a candidate to talk about national security and the economy together. A stab was made at this by linking "national security" and "economic security." I'm not sure this is the way to go, but it's the right framework.


I have to say, this Note snippet has me brain-locked. Anyone else have a thought?
posted by Adam

7:15 PM/

Tuesday, May 06, 2003  

I can't believe I'm losing to this guy

As sometimes happens, a broad swath of political sentiment was captured perfectly in a pop culture moment. I am thinking of the classic Saturday Night Live sketch of the 1988 Presidential debate. Jon Lovitz was Dukakis and Dana Carvey was Bush. After Carvey spouted off some nonsensical answer, Lovitz responded with "I can't believe I'm losing to this guy."


I think that line captured perfectly the feelings of lots of Democrats then, and I think those same feelings have resurfaced with Bush II. There is a sense of frustration among Democrats that somehow the public has "bought" Bush's act, that Bush is too dumb to be President, and that if people would only start paying attention, the Democrats would win in 2004. Maybe I'm overstating, but I don't think so.

I think this line of thought is dangerous and wrong. First, I don't think Bush is as dumb as many people think. Just because he can't string a sentence together doesn't mean he lacks intelligence. More importantly, though, I think Bush benefits from extraordinary message discipline and simplicity of message. Further, I think it is easy to give short shrift to exactly how much these things matter in modern politics.

Which brings us to Margaret Carlson. I don't mean to pick on her, but her diary on Slate illustrates my point rather nicely.

First, she says that the message put out by the nine person Democratic field in Saturday's debate was "diffuse." Objectively, this is ridiculous. Wouldn't a reasonable person expect nine people with dispirate philosophies and ideas to be diffuse? Wouldn't one expect candidates to be testing and reforming their ideas eighteen months before the election? No. Nine people saying different things comes across as " too diffuse." Now, some may wish to castigate Carlson for being a "cool kid" or for having malicious motives. I don't. I don't think she's being unfair or dishonest. Rather, I think it is revealing that a lifelong political junkie hears nine different messages and honestly finds them " too diffuse." Imagine how the debate appeared to a political outsider.


Now, imagine a speech instead of a debate, and imagine a simple and coherent message. Imagine that speech gets repeated nine times over a weekend. Would Carlson describe that message as diffuse? Probably not. Would she describe it as consistent, strong, coherent, clear? Likely so.


In fact, this is what happens in her next two sentences. Describing Bush's speech aboard the Abraham Lincoln, she says:


The Democrats are trying to get through to a public who, on the one hand, hopes that toppling Saddam actually makes them safer and, on the other, is entertained and impressed by Bush landing in a fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln. Democrats point out how artificial and choreographed the whole enterprise was. But it's a little like Christmas. Not believing in Santa Claus doesn't stop you from loving those presents under the tree.


Media criticism too often jumps to attack the motives of individuals. Carlson's diary shows, in my opinion, that reporters and pundits are people, too (shocking, I know). They take in and process information just like the rest of us. If what they hear is clear, concise, and repeated so often that they can't forget it ("Bush is a bold leader"), then they are more likely to report that message positively than if the message is "too diffuse" (Democrats all putting out different ideas). First, they will have understood and retained the message. Second, such message discipline and delivery does the reporter's work for him/her. Reporters are just like everyone else- if someone else will make their job easier for them, they won't refuse the assistance.


Bush dominates his press coverage through exacting message discipline and delivery. It is not rocket science, just good politics. It is also the reason that I can believe we're losing to this guy.


More to come on how to impose message discipline on a nine person Presidential field...
posted by Adam

4:03 PM/  

I think this Krugman piece sums up my general feeling of ooginess about the recent hooking of the presidential tail quite nicely.
posted by Amanda

3:57 PM/
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