Monday, September 13, 2004

What Gore could've done

I agree with Matt that the Bush-AWOL story isn't likely to matter very much in the election. Lindsay's distinctions are the right ones to draw, but I think her analysis would be better applied to the 2000 election. (Also, I'm not entirely happy with the way she relativizes 'should' to the beliefs and desires of each voter, but let's leave that aside for now.)

I didn't know anything about the Bush-AWOL story until this year, and I was following politics quite closely in 2000. If it had been dumped on Bush through some media leaks shortly after he became the de facto nominee, I think it would've been fairly effective. Combined with the drunk-driving dirt that Chris Lehane dug up (dumped too late to shape perceptions of Bush), it could've defined Bush in such a way that the cocaine rumors would've seemed plausible enough for the mainstream media to give serious attention to. And if people heard about this stuff before they heard Bush's born-again personal bullshit narrative, many would regard that story as his shifty way of not taking responsibility for his past. The resulting picture of Bush would be of an unreliable reprobate whom nobody should trust with the responsibilities of the presidency. Gore could then run as the opposite kind of character -- the smart, reliable guy who could be depended on to continue the Clinton economic/budgetary magic.

It's good when you can define yourself and your opponent in directly opposing terms. Once you've done that, when you say "I have good quality X!" everybody feels the implicature that your opponent has bad quality not-X. Bush has done that in this election -- when he says that he'll be steadfast against terrorism, the implied contrast to the supposedly flipflopping Kerry is palpable. Gore could've done that to Bush in 2000 when Bush was new on the scene and definable, but for some reason Gore didn't. Maybe it has to do with the greater reluctance of Democratic candidates to go negative, or maybe it has to do with general incompetence in the Gore 2000 campaign. The current sentiment among many Democrats that Kerry should be emphasizing his competence (sure it's complicated to tell this story, but can't somebody manage it?) against Bush's policy incompetence (effects of which include a bad economy, high deficits, Medicare premiums going huge, Osama running free, North Korea with nukes, and the Iraq quagmire) seems exactly right to me -- it gives us a great opposition to work with, and one that matters more to voters than the Vietnam-AWOL opposition.

Ought we have a politics where these ways of painting someone's character determine the course of elections? I don't think so -- I'd like it if everyone were a boring policy wonk and didn't care about these kinds of issues. But it seems we do have a politics like this, and if you don't play these dumb character-assassination games right, fools will run the country into the ground.

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