[Mb-civic] The Pathetic Truth
michael at michaelbutler.com
Tue Sep 14 11:44:31 PDT 2004
The Pathetic Truth
A unified theory of everything that explains why Democrats always get
By Michael Tomasky
Web Exclusive: 09.13.04
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It's still possible that John Kerry could win -- although, of course,
anytime a liberal columnist opens his column with a phrase like that, it's
not a good sign.
Yes, it's still possible. The Clinton bullpen squad could rally the
candidate. (And don't forget: He's a great closer!!) But even if he does
win, this campaign has already offered another object lesson in why
Democrats tend to lose.
The problem begins with the fact that majorities of the public tend to
agree with Democrats on the issues. This isn't universally true, of course,
but it's true with regard to more issues (perhaps many more issues) than
not. On health care, the environment, investment, education, just about
everything except national defense, majorities lean toward the Democratic
This sounds like a good thing. But in fact, it's an incredibly bad thing,
because it leads Democrats to believe that they can win on the issues. So a
Democratic presidential candidate's pollster goes out into the field and
comes back with data proving that 54 of percent of the people are with us on
this issue, and 61 percent of them are with us on that one, and so on. And
so the pollster tells the candidate, "Just talk about the issues, and
everything will be ducky."
Republican pollsters, meanwhile, conduct the same polls, and they study the
They tell their candidates, "Actually, boss, we can't really win on the
issues, so we'd better come up with something else." Well, after the past
six weeks, we all know what that something else is. It's character. That is,
make the election about the other guy's character.
I don't want to sound like a conspiracy monger, but all the evidence of how
this campaign has played out so far suggests that something like the
following happens. It seems that once the Democratic nominee is decided --
in the current case, that would have been early March -- the top Republican
and conservative strategists start having conversations. They probably get
together and say something like: "OK, John Kerry's the nominee. In one
sentence or maybe two, what do we want the American voting public to be
thinking about John Kerry by November 2? The neighbors discussing their
votes on election eve -- what do we want them to be saying about Kerry?"
The answer they settled on was clearly something to the effect that "he
can't be trusted to fight the war on terror." Then, once they've agreed on
that, they say: "Okay. How do we get there from here? What are the stages of
the argument?" And then they lay it out, and the stages are exactly as we've
First, label him a flip-flopper. Establish him as unreliable.
When dealing with someone who's been in the Senate for 20 years, casting
thousands of roll-call votes on everything under God's sun, that's child's
Second, go after his war record in Vietnam. It's the one obvious
resume advantage Kerry has (had?) over Bush. Erase it with a bunch of old
and not credible charges. Turn Kerry's advantage into a wash.
Third, bring in Kerry's 1971 testimony. That should have the
effect of planting the seed: Gee, if he spoke out against America then, can
we be sure he'll defend America now?
Fourth and last, once the historical groundwork is established,
bring it up to the present. Tie it into terrorism and Iraq. Kerry -- the
flip-flopper, the war-story embellisher, the critic of American military
aims -- can't be trusted.
I should note for disclosure purposes that I think they're a bunch of
scurrilous liars. But what I think isn't the point of this column. The point
is how organized and good they are at what they do. There are occasional
departures from the script, like Dick Cheney's extemporaneous remark that a
Kerry election would ensure another terrorist attack; everyone understands
that that is certainly the implied message of Republican salvos, it's just
not the kind of thing you're actually supposed to say. But 97 percent of the
time, the Republicans stay completely on the message they decided on shortly
after they knew who their competition was going to be. And sure enough, come
November 2, a lot of American voters will be driving to their polling
places, thinking to themselves, "Gosh, I just don't think John Kerry can be
trusted to fight the war on terror."
And the Democrats? Well, if they had such a strategy, they sure haven't
offered any evidence that it was implemented. They don't appear to do any of
this. And it's not that they don't do it because they're better people. It's
a socio-pyschological fact (if there is such a bird) that liberals tend to
want to believe the best about the world, while conservatives see the world
in darker, more Hobbesian hues. This, not the fact that they're better human
beings, makes liberals less likely to play on voters' fears -- makes them
want to believe that they actually can win a campaign on the issues.
In a rational world (speaking of things liberals want to believe in!), they
would win campaigns on the issues. And in fact they did win two, but that
was only when they had an unusually articulate and charismatic candidate
named Clinton (and when it was possible to win with 43 percent of the vote,
as Clinton did in 1992, or when the Hobbesians nominate a septuagenarian
hatchet man, as they did in 1996).
But the world is the world. Republicans understand the world, and Democrats
do not. Republicans know that voters will respond emotionally to character
questions, and they know that the media will lap them up like a thirsty dog.
Democrats keep thinking that voters will do something as improbably
nutritional as study a health care plan (as, surely, a scattered few do),
and that the media will show themselves eager to write articles and
broadcast discussion segments about health care plans. Both assumptions are
George W. Bush has a record the Democrats should have made mincemeat of.
Right about now, the media should be writing, and American voters should be
thinking: Golly, a million jobs lost, millions more in poverty,
manufacturing down; no WMD's, 1,000-plus dead, Iraq on the brink of civil
war, al-Qaeda larger than ever and still recruiting, acts of worldwide
terrorism on the rise, North Korea and Iran responding to the cowboy routine
by going nuclear. This should have been easy.
Now, it's too late for the Democrats to create these narratives. The
counter-narrative is too well established. Kerry could still win, but
whatever his fate, Democratic political professionals need to think hard
about this. They get paid millions of dollars (and here I am offering all
this for free), and they dispense the same wrong advice over and over. And
over. And over. And. . .
Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.
Copyright © 2004 by The American Prospect, Inc. Preferred Citation:
Michael Tomasky, "The Pathetic Truth", The American Prospect Online, Sep
13, 2004. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for
compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author.
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