Monday, February 21, 2005

New Strategy - Attack an Opponent's Strengths

My colleague Bob Friedrich suggested to me during the fall campaign that a new strategy was emerging - rather than exploit an opponent's weakness, it seemed that the anti-Kerry forces were going after his strengths. Now, a right-wing lobbying outfit, USA Next (formerly United Seniors Association), appears to be employing the same approach. The New York Times is reporting that the group has hired consultants who assisted the Swift Boat Veterans to help assail the AARP because the latter opposes Bush's efforts to "reform" Social Security. I realize the AARP is unpopular in some circles, but generally speaking they're viewed quite favorably by the public.

Nevertheless, USA Next plans to take them down. Here's a sense of the subtlety of the group's efforts (from the Times article):

"They [AARP] are the boulder in the middle of the highway to personal savings accounts," said Charlie Jarvis, president of USA Next and former deputy under secretary of the interior in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. "We will be the dynamite that removes them."

One USA Next official predicted that this time around, the campaign would be so aggressive that the White House might not to want to associate with it.

"We are going to take them on in hand-to-hand combat," said Mr. Jarvis, who is biting in his remarks about AARP, calling the group "stodgy, overweight, bureaucratic and out of touch."

It also doesn't seem to matter to USA Next that nearly everything the Swift Boat Veterans said about Kerry was thoroughly discredited (see here, here, here, here, and here, all of which are from the highly respected, non-partisan, Annenberg Public Policy Center's

To USA Next, the battle lines have already been drawn, and it does not shy away from comparisons to the veterans' campaign against Senator Kerry. "It's an honor to be equated with the Swift boat guys," Mr. Jarvis said.

Now, I'm not squeamish, and I know that politics "ain't tiddlywinks," but at some point the nastiness of campaigns (for office or over policy) steps over the line (though don't ask me where to draw that line). I know politics has always had a negative edge and that there really isn't a Golden Age of Substantive Political Debate. But in an age of hypermedia, this sort of thing will eventually begin to have a negative effect on democracy - if it hasn't already.

Having said that, it's the content, not the tone, that's most problematic. I don't mind groups or individuals yelling at one another, though it's unseemly. But what does being "stodgy, overweight, bureaucratic and out of touch" have to do with the AARP's argument against Bush's Social Security proposal?

Perhaps even more than the normative concern over what this means for democracy, however, I'm interested in whether or not - or rather, under what conditions - this strategy is effective. Will candidates be able to engage in it, or is it strictly the bailiwick of advocacy groups? To this point, the basic approach has been to highlight an opponent's weakness, emphasize your own strength, or some combination of the two. Attacking the opponent where he/she/it seems most invulnerable is relatively uncharted territory and it deserves to be watched closely.


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