Scare Tactics

Bush goes negative in a bid to define Kerry. If that doesn’t work, what does he have left?


It’s March, nearly eight months away from the election, and already the Bush campaign is going negative. Which isn’t only highly unusual, it’s highly risky. After all, if voters don’t buy the version of Sen. John Kerry Bush is peddling, what does the president have left to sell them?

The Bush/Cheney campaign’s salvo of attack ads have been accompanied by a raft of remarkably partisan speeches by GOP powers.
The hope is to pin an identity on Kerry early — one of a waffler, weak on defense, unpatriotic — while the country is still unsure of who he is and what he stands for. Or, as Jim Rutenberg of The New York Times puts it, “to first strip Mr. Kerry of the positive image that he carried away from the Democratic primary contests and then to define him issue by issue in their own terms.”

So far, Rutenberg writes, GOP strategists think the blitz is working: Kerry’s poll ratings have slumped slightly, while Bush’s have revived somewhat. But the Bush approach could still backfire, and badly. Negative ads have a way of coming back to haunt candidates, especially when they’re perceived as untrue or deceptive (and the Bush attack ads are already being described as just that).

But Bush may be running an even bigger risk this year. The president’s team is attempting to define Kerry on two issues: national security and taxes. Predictably, those are also the issues Bush hopes to use in defining his own candidacy. The problem? Stripped of the attack angle, Bush’s campaign message is an essentially built on hopeless worries and hopeful faith. On national security, he is banking on portraying the world as too treacherous, too dangerous to risk having anybody but him in the White House. On taxes, he can only contend that his massive breaks will — eventually — lead to prosperity for the millions of Americans who remain in dire straits. As William Saletan puts it in a dissection of the recent Bush ads on Slate:

“Forward” delivers the positive half of the message. It starts with Bush’s reassuring twinkle as he tells us everything will be OK. “We can go forward with confidence, resolve, and hope,” he says, as we see a girl bounding happily toward the horizon of a landscape that appears to be the Windows XP default desktop background. Lest anyone miss the key words, they follow the girl on the screen: “Confidence. Resolve. Hope.” Why these words? Because they require no evidence. You can resolve to make things better, hope that they will get better, and have confidence that they will get better, even when things aren’t getting better. In fact, confidence, resolve, and hope are precisely what a president has to ask you for when he has nothing tangible to show you.

The Bush campaign is now running five ads in 18 battleground states at the cost of about of $6 million per week. The Kerry campaign has produced just one ad in response, decrying the Bush ads as distortions while trying to redirect attention to the economy. Kerry can only afford one-third of Bush’s media buy, and instead hopes to rely on other political groups to run ads, like moveon.org, who aren’t legally allowed to communicate with the campaign.

The GOP is using Kerry’s long Senate record to drive home an image of Kerry (as they say in the most recent ad) as “wrong on defense” and not a decisive leader. Last week, Bush aired a TV ad in which the following charges appeared on the screen for nine seconds: “John Kerry’s Plan: Weaken Fight Against Terrorists”; “John Kerry’s Plan: Delay Defending America.”

Unfortunately for the Democrats, Kerry’s paper trail in the Senate could provide even more ammunition, with plenty of votes which seem more than questionable when stripped of their political nuance and context. A harshly-toned speech by Cheney last week focused on Kerry’s inability to be a war leader. Referring to his Senate record, he said: “The senator from Massachusetts has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security.” As Britain’s, The Guardian writes, it’s not just the advertisements that are at work on Kerry:

“Besides the ad campaign, all President Bush’s speeches this week have been related to the war on terror. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz have both been mobilised in support of the theme, appearing on network political shows and talk radio stations up and down the country. Vice-president Dick Cheney is also singing from the same song sheet, amplifying the message: President Bush is a strong leader in a time of war; Senator Kerry just can’t be trusted.

The latest polling data has revealed that Senator Kerry is still something of an enigma to most Americans. The Bush team, with their massive advantage in campaign funds, is hoping to fill in the blank with their own version of Kerry and set it in stone.”

Americans are just beginning to develop an image of Kerry, so slapping a few derogatory keywords on him (and then reinforcing those over and over and over again) could be a good strategy for Bush. But going so negative, so early, isn’t a surefire win for the Bush campaign. In fact, given there are months until the election, there’s plenty of time for Americans to get tired of the dirty politics.

Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, and author of “Dirty Politics: Deception, Distraction and Democracy” tells Salon:

“If the ads are seen as legitimate and fair, it’s OK. But for instance the recent Republican attacks on Kerry’s past votes on defense spending have large gaps of evidence, yet are drawing large inferences. If we see similar TV attack ads like that, it will give the press, and the opponent, the chance to argue that Bush is playing loose with the facts.”

She is referring to an ad claiming that Kerry wants to raise taxes by $900 million — a claim Kerry and numerous pundits have refuted as simply untrue. Bush strategists even admitted they invented the issue — assuming that raising taxes to that extent would be the only way Kerry could cover the costs of his proposed health plan. Jamieson also points to the fact that, since 9/11, more Americans pay closer attention to the news, which makes it harder for them to blindly accept the statements in negative ads. “This is not 1996,” she said.

In fact, the Bush campaign has already run into trouble with one of their ads that featured 9/11 footage. The images were supposed to evoke the same feelings of unity and steadfastness with Bush that were present at the time of the attacks. It didn’t work. Families of those involved in the attacks criticized Bush for crassly taking advantage of their loss for his political gain and John Zogby said Republicans’ 9/11-centric strategy was designed with a 75
percent-approval president in mind — not for one whose standing
has eroded.

Siobhan Gorman of The National Journal writes that “one big lesson from the controversy over the 9/11 footage in
President Bush’s first 2004 campaign ads is”:

“looking backward tends to be more fraught with political peril than looking ahead. Bush used the public’s 9/11-inspired fear of terrorism to great effect in the 2002 midterm elections, in which his party captured the Senate. He successfully cast Senate Democrats as unpatriotically and dangerously standing in the way of his proposal to bolster the nation’s defenses by creating a Department of Homeland Security. With more at stake in 2004, Team Bush is adopting a riskier strategy.”

Team Bush is obviously trying to keep the campaign focused on their issue, terror and national security, but, as of right now, Americans seem to have different priorities. According to a Gallup poll, the percentage of Americans who are optimistic about the economy is declining. More Americans believe that Kerry would be a better economic leader than Bush. As Gallup states:

“Unless the issue of terrorism grows more important in the minds of voters by Election Day than it is today — a distinct possibility if terrorist events like the one in Madrid, Spain on 3/11 are repeated elsewhere — President George W. Bush’s solid reputation with the public for handling terrorism may not be enough to secure his reelection.”

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