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It's Not What You Say About the Issues...

I can't disagree with Michael Tomasky's "unified theory of everything," which is basically that Republicans win elections by emphasizing character, whereas Democrats lose because they emphasize issues instead, because they believe that issues should be the ground on which elections are contested and also that the public supports them on issues.

As much of a liberal policy wonk as I am, I don't believe that issues should be the basis on which people base their votes. To rank character very high is not just a tactical necessity for candidates, it's perfectly legitimate for voters. First, this is not a parliamentary system, and rational voters know that they are not really choosing a platform along with a president, but rather are choosing a particular stance or attitude in relation to the other centers of power in the political system. And, second, in a basically affluent and tranquil society -- despite income inequality, despite 45 million uninsured, despite all that -- the problems we don't know about are still a bigger deal than the ones we do. To use Donald Rumsfeld's great taxonomy, the "unknown unkowns" are more worrisome than the "known unkowns" or the "known knowns." I don't mean to endorse the "9/11 changed everything" nonsense, but 9/11 was a vivid demonstration that how a president reacts to that, or any other, crisis is of far greater concern than the exact legislative specifics of his health care plan. (Bush ranks equally poorly by either standard.)

If I were running the issues department of the Kerry campaign, or any campaign, the sign above my desk would not be James Carville's "It's the Economy Stupid": my sign would say, "It's not what you say about the issues, it's what the issues say about you." That is, as a candidate, you must choose to emphasize issues not because they poll well or are objectively our biggest problems, but because they best show the kind of person you are, and not just how you would deal with that particular issue, but others yet to rear their heads. The best illustration of that is John McCain. The most admired political figure achieved his status in large part by his crusade for campaign finance reform. I've seen all the polls on this for seven or eight years, and "campaign finance reform," as an issue, is of interest to at most 5% of the public. I'd like for it to be otherwise, but it's not. And yet, for McCain, campaign finance reform is the perfect issue. It's tells a story about his independence, and his persistence, and it gives him a populist message without having to embrace more liberal economic policies. Clinton's much-derided "micro-initiatives" of the mid-1990s likewise sent a message about who he was: responsible, not extreme, neither a lover of government for its own sake nor a nihilist like Newt Gingrich. The insignificance of his gestures was a potent message in itself, and saved his presidency.

I don't think the problem with Kerry is that he talks about issues when he should be talking about character. That was Al Gore's problem. I think the problem is that the Kerry brain has split into an issues half, and a character half, and the two sides aren't communicating. The character half controlled the convention, and focused on Vietnam. Fine, but what did that say about how he would deal with Iraq? And the issues half has plans -- entirely good ones, even for Iraq. But those proposals don't reinforce any sense of the kind of person Kerry is, and how he would cope in a crisis.

I don't know enough about the internal politics of the Kerry world (in which I know almost no one) to speculate whether one side is represented by Bob Shrum or Michael Whouley or John Sasso or whoever. But whatever the factions are, they have to get it together. The issues and scheduling side of the campaign has to stop picking an issue of the day, based on the polls. It has to start trying to choose some issues that really emphasize whatever it is that they want to say about Kerry as a person that contrasts him to Bush (honest, brave, forward-seeing, smart, common-sense, independent, cares-about-ordinary-people -- pick one and reinforce it) and then use those issues to tell that story over a period of a week or more. And where they want to attack Bush on either character or issues, pick a point that best emphasizes a single point that they want to emphasize to draw the contrast with Kerry. That means, among other things, saying no to all the issue-advocacy groups that are besieging the campaign, brandishing polls and begging Kerry to devote a day to their cause.

To a voter paying modest attention, the Bush campaign would not seem less issue-oriented than Kerry's, and Bush can probably argue that he spends more time talking about issues than character. Bush is astonishingly unembarassed to march headfirst into issues that, to a knowledgeable observer, don't reflect well on his own leadership, such as Iraq, the Medicare bill, or further tax cuts. Bush understands, as Kerry does not, that what matters about those choices is not whether the public wants more tax cuts or whether the Iraq war is going well, but what those issues say about Bush as a person: resolute, unfazed, reliable. Kerry and his campaign need a little dose of that insight.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on September 14, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Mark, I think your point is true only in that it would be a nice conceptual addition to Kerry's campaign. I do not believe that it is absolutely necessary and constitutes some missing link in why Kerry isn't running away with the race. I find myself surprised to be fundamentally disagreeing with you -- for the first time ever.

I do not buy your take on Clinton's microinitiative tactics as an example of how he used issues to define himself - not even in '96. And certainly nobody in '92 was aware of "microinitiatives." I think people voted for Clinton in '92 because of change, not because voters thought he was tough, or resolute, or brilliant, or empathic - though empathic and likeable was important to his public self-definition.

What is Kerry's public self-definition? His attempt, exemplified in 'reporting for duty', was "loyal, dedicated patriot." Not a bad self-definition for this race, and the attacks that followed. I think the other component to his campaign that swing state voters see is an implied populism (rather than the touchy feely empathy of Clinton). This may become more apparent in the next 6 weeks. Gore's populism was more prominent from the convention onward. But Gore had no self-definition whatsoever -- which led directly to his other-definition by his opponents. Kerry has not been Gored *nearly* as much as Gore himself.

And we now see polls coming back to neck and neck and a continued small battleground state lead for Kerry. So as you can see we're really talking about campaign strategy and tactics.

So again the unstated implication is that Kerry has some kind of "problem." While I do not give his campaign overall an 'A', I do give it an 'A-minus'. Furthermore, 9-11 has re-introduced the irrational emotion of fear into the electorate, and emotions are very difficult to combat with logic.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Sep 14, 2004 12:34:42 PM

I don't know, Crab. I think Mark is at least correct about how each candidate uses issues to reflect thing about themselves. Accurate or not, Bush uses even issues like Iraq to suggest that he's tough on terrorism and provides strong leadership. I can't think of something analogous for Kerry. Is this a problem for Kerry? Can he win the election without doing this? This is a unique election, so it's hard to say. I'd suggest that no candidate in any election can afford to utilize every tool at its disposal.

Here are some examples of how Kerry can talk about, not necessarily current, issues that reveal his character. He can talk about how he joined w/ McCain to pursue and bring closure to the MIA issue. That says that he cares about his fellow soldiers and respects them and their families enough to make the MIA issue a priority. He can talk about his initiative to confront Asian mafia organizations through financial policing strategies, a tactic that can (and likely has been) applied to al Qaida and the like. This shows him to have a creative, flexible mind that will embrace ingenuity in the fight against terrorism. I'm not campaigning expert, so clearly these need refinement. But the nuggets are there for Kerry to use to his advantage.

Posted by: Jon | Sep 14, 2004 2:59:26 PM

Jon, I like your suggestions, but they are hardly headline makers. More like lines in a speech. My post, which I rushed through, tried to make the point that Kerry has done some self definition.

Some Democrats (on the web) seem to think it should be easy to beat Bush this year. It is anything but. He is an incumbent, he's well funded, he has the GOP message machine, he has an ability to use 'fear' due to 9-11.

Yet defeating him is do-able, and the polling (post convention bounce) is headed back in the right direction. Kerry looks to me to be running a solid under the radar field effort in the battleground states. I think a lot of northeasterners and Californians who desparately despise Bush and criticize Kerry on the web are not clued in to what's going on in the campaign because it's not focussed on them. If the best Bush can do after his relatively well run convention is a slight lead, then things are quite OK.

Can Kerry define himself better? Sure. I agree with that much. But he hasn't done such a bad job.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Sep 14, 2004 3:11:33 PM

Certainly professionals can improve upon my offerings, but you get the idea.

I guess I'm reacting to the relentless efforts of the GOP to define Kerry. I know he's made efforts to define himself, but even on Monday Night Football (of all places; the Thursday night edition pitting New England at home against Indianapolis) you get stuff like this: Madden commented that the game was flip flopping back and forth and Michaels said, "That's appropriate given the state they're playing in." It's this sort of popular "wisdom" that Kerry has to overcome, and I think .

This is the sort of thing where we'll know if Kerry did enough to define himself only when it's too late. I guess my preference is that Kerry do too much than not enough...

Posted by: Jon | Sep 14, 2004 3:39:50 PM

What are Kerry's good plans for Iraq? I hadn't noticed any, just the usual blah-blah-blah about international support and so forth...

Posted by: angry moderate | Sep 14, 2004 4:07:00 PM

AM -

I hear what you're saying, but Iraq is a fluid situation, and one can't really expect a nuts and bolts plan from Kerry right now. Frankly, we're so far down the river that there may not be any good options going forward, only messy ones. The best that we can hope for is a new initiative to garner international support for whatever course is chosen.

Incidentally, international support and cooperation is also a necessity if we want to get a handle on terrorism. These groups don't need agreeable host nations to succeed in their efforts, which is why cooperation amongst nations is so important. The usual blah-blah-blah about international support may not sound exciting or clever, but it's critical to our interests in the long term.

Posted by: Jon | Sep 14, 2004 4:41:55 PM

Fascinating post as usual, Mark. I don't totally agree with this, though:

"First, this is not a parliamentary system, and rational voters know that they are not really choosing a platform along with a president, but rather are choosing a particular stance or attitude in relation to the other centers of power in the political system."

I think you are letting American voters off the hook a bit too easily here. The vagaries of the U.S. political system may mean that candidates and parties can't publish "manifestoes" (as in the U.K.) where they spell out their plans in great detail and are expected to stick closely to them. But still, it's pretty clear that you're voting for one general type of policy if you vote for the Democrat, and for a very different kind if you vote for the Republican. For example, we can't know within, say, a billion dollars how big Kerry's tax increase will be - and part of the reason for this may, in fact, be that Kerry's "character" is not particularly resolute or politically courageous. But obviously it is far more likely that a President Kerry will pass a tax increase that will make it at least possible for us to fight terrorism, salvage Iraq, save Medicare, provide health care, and pay down the debt. Bush will do none of these things because he refuses to raise taxes, and the consequences will be ruinous for a lot of people.

So...All I'm trying to say is that it is possible to vote on policy even in the American system, and I do think the public is failing in its responsibility if it does not try to put "character" (whatever that even means, exactly) aside long enough to consider the policy angle. You may not choose a formal, detailed "platform" with a President, but you're choosing an ideology that will translate into concrete policies whose general nature it is possible to predict. It is *not* rational for voters to simply ignore this facet of a candidate.

Posted by: El Gringo Loco | Sep 14, 2004 5:34:45 PM

The fact that Bush got enough votes to steal the election from Gore has lead to an interesting phenomenon:

Every single Democrat in the United States wants to be a campaign manager.

That is only a slight exaggeration.

What we need now is a way for every Democrat to interact with the campaign. Maybe one place where we can vote - attack more or define Kerry more or make a commitment about Iraq.

Maybe all of the usual commenters can put their opinions into one place and see who gets the most votes. Or vote by donation to the DNC, see which set of free advice has the most money behind it.

We all want to feel like we are part of the campaign and influencing the decisions. We already have moveon.org. We need more. Another outlet to channel our anxiety over the election.

I have a great plan for Iraq though:

Fire Cheney. Fire Rumsfeld. Fire Rice. Fire Wolfowitz. Yes, Fire Powell.

These people have made bad decision after bad decision trying to fight terrorism.

The next president will have to make choices - what choices? I'm just not sure. An administration without a solid track record of disasters will be helpful in itself.

Posted by: Wesley Dancer | Sep 15, 2004 4:09:51 AM

For Decembrist, us political junkies know or could find out enough about Kerry's character that we could produce our own message to voters in swing states or nationally.

Lets get started. How much money is it going to cost to get our message out?

One character-based message per week? With different issues presented in support of this message?

How much of that will $50 dollars buy?

Posted by: Wesley Dancer | Sep 15, 2004 4:17:30 AM

WD -

Not enough time in this election, but this is what needs to happen going forward. Sometimes it helps to have outside organizations tout their candidate's qualities. Yeah, it'll cost lots of money, but we need to start rallying around our candidates in forceful, effective ways using mass media. 527 ads that trumpet our candidate's character and values will help counteract the unending attempts by the other side to define our candidate negatively.

Posted by: Jon | Sep 15, 2004 9:41:52 AM

As an issue that defines Kerry, BCCI might not be a bad one. The September issue of Washington Monthly www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2004/0409.sirota.html does a good job with this.

Perhaps someone else--John Edwards maybe--could talk about Kerry's Excellent Adventure in Busting the Bank of Credit and Commerce International, which financed Latin American drug cartels and much much more. If positioned properly, the BCCI story speaks volumes about Kerry's character, competence, experience in the senate, and qualifications relative to fighting terrorism.

The BCCI scandal is all about financing terrorists, speaking truth to power, persevering when the mainstream--including your usual Democratic allies-- tell you to cease and desist. It suggests that John Kerry still has greatness in him--and displayed it in the early 1990s by helping to dismantle a massive criminal enterprise. It's the antithesis of insider cronyism that marks the Bush and Cheney folks.
So what are you waiting for, Cahill, McCurry et al?

Posted by: sylny | Sep 15, 2004 1:03:34 PM

I would like to associate myself completely with El Gringo Loco’s comments, but also to add that I find very troubling your claim that voters should consider primarily character in making their decisions. It may be an accurate description of the way voters actually behave, but as a normative assertion it suggests unwarranted despair (or cynicism) about the possibilities for voter rationality in a democracy. Character ultimately is always unknowable; to legitimate voting on character is to resign oneself to (or to celebrate) voter irrationality. Of course voters can’t vote for specific future policy choices by a candidate, but they can vote for his policy orientation—-for a government that intervenes actively in economic life, or for free market fundamentalism; for an aggressive, unilateralist foreign policy or for a more restrained multilateralist approach, etc. You, yourself admit the importance of policy orientation by in effect sneaking it into your definition of character. When you say that voters liked Bill Clinton’s "much-derided micro-iniatives" what you are saying, really, is that they liked his essentially centrist policy orientation. Indeed, I think probably not a few voters generally approved of Clinton’s policies even while they despised his character.

Moreover, there is no simple, generally reliable indicator of candidates' character, but there is of policy orientation: party affiliation. Notwithstanding the occasional Zel Miller, the differences between Democrats and Republicans today are generally consistent and enduring. A candidate's party affiliation tells you more about his likely future behavior in office than any guesswork about his "character." So, if like most voters you want to vote on policy while economizing on your mental efforts, it's fairly simple: vote the party, not the man (or woman). The Democrats' problem (and challenge) is that so many people don't understand the parties' differences in policy orientation. The Republicans, of course, would like to keep it that way.

Posted by: | Sep 15, 2004 5:22:13 PM

Just a question:

How many reservists were actually disciplined for skipping out on service the way Bush did?

Posted by: Wesley Dancer | Sep 15, 2004 6:45:04 PM

I think the point about the need for the campaign to connect character and policy is right. The need arises partly because there's so little space dedicated to explanation of policy in popular media and partly because some (many?) people do vote for the person (and these two things are of course themselves arguably related). Whether this is the way things should be, alas, clearly can't be the campaign's main concern. This, to my mind, is just too idealistic: acting as though you are in utopia -- with fully-informed, conscientious voters etc -- when you are not. That kind of stubborn high-mindedness just doesn't go with winning elections -- and while winning isn't the only thing, it's certainly a big thing this time around.
In fact, when you think about it, even the word character sounds faintly archaic (alas) -- we could instead talk about personality or style. And the point is that Bush's plainspoken language embodies the idea that he's for the regular person -- while Kerry's qualified language (cleverly tagged as flip-flopping) plays as elitist. He could do with some more folksy punch in how he puts things: that way we would have have more of a match between policies that are for the people (well, at least more than Bush) and a style that is more of the people. But that's just to say that the Dems need to get candidates with a bit more of the common touch (as Brits say).
By the way, on this note, I'm convinced that the Repubs will use the same playbook against Kerry that they did against Gore in the debates, ie. playing Kerry's superior grasp of policy as, well, superior (the high-minded guy with all those "facts" looking down on the regular folk). So, get ready for the post-debate discussion about Kerry being arrogant and know-it-all and not about what he actually knows.
I hope the Dem campaign is ready for this.

Posted by: Dan | Sep 15, 2004 6:53:10 PM

Actually there is an opening for Kerry to match "character" with "issues." And I think Kerry began to open that door today. The idea that Kerry's Vietnam persona, that of saving the man in the water along with speaking out against the war can play into the Iraq issue quite nicely. Stop-loss, National Guard deployments common, along with Bush's fantasy that Iraq is going well play right into it. Bush isn't the good commander because he won't level with us when he drags us God-knows-where on the flimsiest of lies.

Posted by: Rob W | Sep 16, 2004 8:50:41 PM

The "decembrists" were not liberal. Which demonstrates a very frequent flaw of the liberals: they don't know what they're talking about. Learn more, they were totalitarians of the kind that if they had made it to power, they would have made Stalin look like an innocent boy in comparison. That is off topic, of course. On topic: this is all entirely specious. The US democracy is a simulacrum. What kind of role one should play when partaking in simulated elections is entirely immaterial. Even abstractly, I don't fully agree; issues are important. Character is important too, but especially so for a kind who'd reign for a significant length of time. For a four-year executive, it's less crucial. But let us climb down from the abstract to a more mundane level: whatever they say is BS anyway, be it about "issues", or "character". I've just heard, Kerry said he sees no reasons for the Iraq invasion: now, did he not just a few weeks ago say that he'd approve it even if he knew what we know now (meaning he'd approve it no matter what)? What's up with that? Is it issues, or character, or just one of the outcomes of the US politics being no more than crude histrionics for imbeciles.

Posted by: John Jingleheimer Smith | Sep 17, 2004 1:36:56 AM

The problem is not that Kerry's character and stand on issues are present serially rather than as a united whole.

Quite the opposite -- his character gives substance to the slippery words of his stance on issues and people are rejecting both.

Posted by: too true | Sep 17, 2004 8:03:42 AM

"The problem is not that Kerry's character and stand on issues are present serially rather than as a united whole.

Quite the opposite -- his character gives substance to the slippery words of his stance on issues and people are rejecting both."

Another interpretation: the GOP has endlessly (and effectively) repeated the "flip flop" allegation. Some people take the GOP at their word since, without examining Kerry's record in detail, they have no way of knowing that the flip flop charge has little foundation. The GOP has created the false standard that paints every change of position as a character flaw, ignoring that the world is a dynamic place, information is imperfect and rigid adherence to one view or approach is as damaging as changing views all the time.

Oh, and there's nothing inherently contradictory between voting to give President Bush latitude in dealing with Saddam's UN resolution non-compliance and then saying that the the Iraq War was a bad idea. And might I remind everyone that, according to Sec of Treasury Paul O'Neill, Bushco entertained notions of taking out Saddam and invading Iraq BEFORE 9/11/01. In view of this fact, Iraqi WMD sure seem like an invented pretext.

Posted by: Jon | Sep 17, 2004 12:53:06 PM

Comforting but, sadly, no. I think I first heard the old saw attributed to the colorful attorney Jerry Spence (I've also heard it attributed to Senator Sam Ervin):

"If the facts favor your case, argue the facts; if the law favors your case, argue the law; if neither the facts nor the law favor your case, pound on the table."

There's a political campaign equivalent:

"If your position on the policies favors you, run on your position on policies; if your character (or the perception of your character) favors you, run on your character; if neither your position on the policies nor your character favors you, complain about the other side's campaign strategy."

Mr. Kerry is trying all of the above.

Posted by: Dave Schuler | Sep 17, 2004 2:57:29 PM

I don't think the internal politics of the EU/NATO will permit "international support" for anything but barely disguised withdrawal for the foreseeable future, so that may be a non-starter, unless Kerry CAN get specific. Which is also a non-starter.

In the end, it's going to come down to "do it right with what we've got, or run."

Posted by: Brian H | Sep 17, 2004 7:14:35 PM

I think Republicans will win this election because they now have a popstar in their ranks: check out how good George W. Bush is at singing! Apparantly someone remixed some of his speeches. Especially Dick is a Killer is hilarious! thx to noctos for the link: http://noctos.blogspot.com/2004/09/ladies-and-gents-president-of-usa.html

Posted by: Miriam Acznak | Sep 25, 2004 7:25:36 AM

Party affiliation is the only relevant criterion. No one votes for individuals--or *for* parties either, for that matter. Votes are cast either against the Democratic Party or against the Republican Party.

Those who wish to vote against both parties sit home: but they, in effect, vote for the winner, by acquiescing in the outcome, whatever it may be.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit | Sep 25, 2004 10:51:13 PM

Thought you guys might want to know about the letter (below) that we're shooting around the internet. We think it could help John Kerry in November if we can get it in front of the eyes of every active Democrat in the country…

TAXWISDOM.ORG

Fellow Democrats:

After decades of relentless bashing by the Republican Party, the Progressive Income Tax has acquired a tarnished reputation in the eyes of many voters. Its defenders have been unable to effectively counter the now familiar Republican appeal to the average voter's very limited sense of self-interest.

The Taxwisdom.org Web Page has been created to help bring about a change in public attitudes toward the Progressive Income Tax. For the benefit of policymakers and voters, we provide a presentation of the powerful theory-based arguments that defend the Progressive Income Tax as the ideal form of taxation.

After reviewing the arguments found on our website, Cornell economist Robert H. Frank---author of The Winner Take All Society (1995), Luxury Fever (1999), and Principles of Economics (2001) --- said:


“…you can put me on record as saying that your arguments on tax policy are among the best that I’ve seen…”

They are powerful because they are derived from the same classical assumptions re: market dynamics that have always been championed by conservative economists. The conservative analytical tradition is used to reveal the ultimate folly of Supply-Side tax policy.

With these new market-based arguments in hand, Democrats will have the firepower they need to start heaping some ridicule on the Republicans for the stupidity of their ideas on tax policy.

Visit the Taxwisdom Web Page at...

www.taxwisdom.org

...print out a copy of the article, and then sit back & enjoy learning about the economic arguments that have the power to utterly discredit the Republican Party’s economic philosophy in the eyes of the American people.

Please note that at this early stage in our efforts, we must rely on an Email Campaign and the efforts of individuals like you to spread the word. We encourage you to pass this letter on to other Democrats & give them a chance to see for themselves the future of tax policy in America.

Linette Tucker,
Email Campaign Manager
[email protected]

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