Thursday, July 29, 2004

The Art Of The Implicit Slam

There's a good article in today's NY Times about the Democrats emerging iron fist in a velvet glove strategy.

The Democrats have been attacking Bush repeatedly, but they have rarely attacked him directly (note that Bush's name is rarely heard form the podium of the Fleet Center). The clearest example of this was when Jimmy Carter, while referring to John Kerry's military service, made the parenthetical comment that "he showed up". Everyone knew what he was talking about, but it was delivered in such a subtle way that the only way for the Republicans to attack it would have been to introduce the AWOL topic themselves.

It made me smile.

It's making the Republicans angry. Not just because of the slams but also because it is giving them so little material to attack directly. Instead they have been reduced to statistical analysis!

"The average time of the Clinton, Carter, Gore, Kennedy and Dean speeches is 1,002.36 seconds," said Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Republican campaign, referring to the remarks of two former presidents and three who might have been. He added that "464.99 seconds on average was spent attacking the president or the president's policies."

By contrast, Mr. Schmidt added, the speakers devoted an average of 232.446 seconds to praising Mr. Kerry, with about 304.924 seconds of what the Republicans considered filler. "So I would argue case closed, in terms of their negativity," he said.

Who would have thought the Republican War Room would be staffed by Vulcans?

The message discipline of the Democrats has been extraordinary. Even in response to these criticisms:

But the Democrats resist any suggestion that they have broken their pledge.

"You can draw contrasts without drawing blood," said Mr. Kerry's spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter. "Elections are about choices, and there are two very different choices on the ballot."

When Mr. Kennedy's veteran spokesman, Jim Manley, was asked in a telephone interview whether the senator had been trying to call Mr. Bush a dumb liar, he broke up and insisted, "That laughter is off the record." Then he called back to add: "Senator Kennedy thinks that Senator Kerry has the wisdom and integrity to be a great president in this dangerous world, period, paragraph."

And the Republicans have become desperate for something to lash out against:

On Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Dean told a labor gathering that his most passionate supporters had made mistakes. "You can't call the president a fascist," Dr. Dean chuckled. After hearing of those comments, Mr. McConnell suggested Wednesday that Dr. Dean had referred to Mr. Bush as a fascist flat-out, but that was clearly a stretch.

Of course, not all Democrats appreciate the genius of this approach:

Some Democratic strategists questioned the very idea of hewing only to the high road, noting that the first task of any challenger is to persuade the public to fire the president. The closeness of all the polling suggests that Mr. Kerry has yet to do that, much less assure that he is a fully acceptable alternative.

A year ago I would have agreed with that sentiment, but that was when Bush was still flying high in the polls. These naysayers are right that the first task of the challenger is to persuade the public to fire Bush. But that case has already been made. In just two years Bush's approval ratings have gone from 90+% to 40+% and that during a time of war when people naturally rally to the President. The people are ready to kick Bush out. Now they just have to be sold on the idea of Kerry being an acceptable replacement. If the Democrats were to continue the direct, firebrand approach of Howard Dean they would just be accused of piling on. By using the "implicit slam", the Democrats are both watering the garden of Bush discontent, keeping it growing, while presenting a more positive impression of their own ability to do better.

That's a win-win.


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