Monday, January 31, 2005

Advice for the other side

Maybe I'm just an obsessive worrier, but I'm worried about the Republicans' political future. This last election should've been a slam dunk on all counts: Bush should have won by a larger margin over an obviously incompetent opponent, the GOP should've won their new congressional seats by larger margins, the gubernatorial races shouldn't have been so incredibly close (especially not so close that it let the Dems steal the Washington seat). The Democrats were so demonstrably wrong-headed that a simple campaign of openness and logical presentation should have put every single contestable race to bed without falling into the "margin of lawyer".

Yet the GOP's campaigns, led by the Bush candidacy, seems to have tripped along and merely lucked out this time. Karl Rove is a political genius, but the way the Bush campaign got caught flat-footed time and time again is simple inexcusable. The prediction was that the wildly liberal media would deliver 15 points to Kerry; after the election, analysts were all over the place crowing about how that didn't happen and the Internet took down the MSM.

But that's the problem: I think the media DID manage to give Kerry 15 points. Not necessarily by portraying him in a positive light, but by portraying Bush in a bad light, or at best a dubious one. There is simply no way a prevaricating, unelectable sap like John Kerry should have gotten 49% of the vote; the media tried to deliver the election to him on a silver platter, and very nearly succeeded. And it's not like it was any big surprise, anyone who pays attention to the media could have predicted this attempted coup. The Bush camp should've been prepped and armed to deal with an intensely hostile media, and they weren't.

To his credit, Rove kept the president on-message with an electable platform that successfully appealed to voters in the opposition party, and that's no small feat. But throughout the campaign, it felt like the Bush campaign didn't know what a 24-hour news cycle was. In a world where the fabled "New York minute" is considered excrutiatingly slow by voters whose watches have an "Internet minute" hand, a campaign needs to have an immediate answer to every bit of bad publicity that could possibly surface. And not just a copy/paste paragraph that regurgitates old press releases; that kind of response is not a response at all, and is guaranteed to be summarily ignored by the information-hungry news outlets.

For example, take the whole Rathergate affair. It took bloggers a single day to tear CBS apart over the fake documents; it took the White House several days to issue a cautious statement regarding Bush's service. Now the Bush camp could not simply jump on the bandwagon and call Dan Rather out on his charade--if they did, it would've discredited the blogs before they gained nation-wide acceptance as the slayers of the MSM Goliath. But Bush's TxANG record was an issue 5 years ago--how could they not have a better answer already prepped and ready to fire off immediately after 60 Minutes ended? Perhaps their strategy was to simply let the Internet debunking churn and roil, and see if it produced any talking points--or perhaps the Bush camp had no clue about the power of instantaneous analysis, and was simply scrambling some talking points together. Bush was fortunate to have the fraudulent bombshell diffused by a credible third party, but the strategy employed by his campaign was either one of incredibly subtle genius--or one that relied on outdated methods of damage control and spin.

Or how about the news from Iraq? The blogs were buzzing for months before the election with news and analysis of the Iraqi war that was getting no play time in the media. Why didn't the Bush administration work to push these stories into the national spotlight? Even against a hostile media, they could have changed the message from one of hope that long-term gains would materialize, into a message of positive changes happening NOW. For Pete's sake, have a weekly news conference on the "State of the War", with straight reporting of casualties, setbacks, and successes, along with solid military analyses. A simple 15 minute briefing, with a smattering of sound-bite friendly graphs and charts (which can be downloaded by anybody on a central web site), and take no questions from reporters. Just highlight the information, good or bad, and let the analysts run with it. And with more good news than bad coming out of Iraq on a daily basis, this setup could have dramatically changed the tone in which the Iraqi war is discussed. So why was the Bush camp so obstinately determined to play defense on the Iraqi war, instead of showing some guts and launching a PR offensive?

There are still intelligent people left in the Democratic party (despite all the recent evidence to the contrary). And they're not sitting back and letting things fall apart; they're mad as hell about Moore et al's hijacking of the party. These Democrats have seen the cancer on their organization, and they're going to fight tooth and nail to hide it by the time the next election rolls around. They might just succeed in making the Dems look sane for a while, allowing them to fool voters into thinking it's safe to go blue for a bit. While the Republicans are busy getting actual work done, the newly marginalized Democrats are plotting intricate political games and strategies for future elections. These Democrats love to play politics, even to the exclusion of effective governing and problem solving; they can not be allowed to sneak in an electoral victory at this crucial point in our nation's history.

Advice for the Democratic is in excess supply these days. If the Republicans let themselves enjoy the Schadenfreude for too long, the next election may realize our greatest fear: that the Democrats actually listened.

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