Kerry Needs Two-Tiered Rovian Attack Strategy
Even though there is still a contested race for the Democratic nomination, it appears that barring a scandal or major misstep by him, John Kerry will be accepting the nomination for president in Boston this summer. The Kerry campaign still must go state-to-state to obtain wins and delegates over the coming weeks against John Edwards and Howard Dean, but the reality is that Kerry must begin the general election campaign now. The White House officially says that they will wait until the Democratic contest is decided before Bush will enter campaign mode, but this is a smokescreen to allow Ed Gillespie and the RNC to begin the “cash and trash” effort against Kerry now. With the release of an internet video to RNC supporters slamming Kerry as candidate of special interests and his recent speeches telling folks that Kerry will run a dirty campaign and questioning his votes on the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, and defense spending, Gillespie and the RNC have already started the essential effort of defining their opponent negatively as early as possible.
These are standard campaign tactics these days, used effectively by Clinton in 1995 and 1996 against Dole, and again by Rove against Gore in 2000. In both cases, the candidate who didn’t respond early to challenge the attacker and their veracity ended up on the outside of the White House looking in. To this end, and given the track record of the people inside the White House now and the amount of money at their disposal, now is the time for John Kerry to begin the counterattacks against Gillespie’s efforts to define him. It is not enough to say, as Kerry keeps saying, that he is ready to respond to the GOP onslaught. He has already today found himself having to respond to the Drudge sludge from yesterday about an extramarital affair so the time to engage is now .
As much as the White House wants to make the questioning of Bush’s military record a smear tactic, it is clear from Josh Marshall’s recap of how poorly Scott McClellan was able to deal with the media today on their questions on Bush’s Guard service that the gambit by Terry McAuliffe to throw the issue out there worked. Sure, voters may be saying that they don’t think this is a big issue by itself, but it has fed into their growing concerns about Bush’s trustworthiness, and has the White House so concerned with making the story go away that they just announced as Bush had told Russert that his whole file will be released, at least those documents that are still around. Such a release will generate even more questions, but the story served to point out Bush’s weakness on the issue. The moral in this story? Go right at Bush and stand your ground, making them back up and sweat. Don’t cave in. The result: Bush and the White House are on the defensive, always backing up.
So aside from the need to not let your opponent define you, and the need to keep Bush on the defensive, what should Kerry do to make this happen? Well, first, as I said, he needs to do more than simply keep saying he’ll respond if they attack him. Senator, they are attacking you already. Don’t play offense by playing defense already. Go on offense and keep them on defense. That’s the point. However, Rove has shown that Bush never does the dirty work himself; he leaves that to Rove’s orchestrated surrogates like Gillespie and the other GOP hacks, who have already started to do this. Such an approach is two-tiered: your candidate does the positive, forward-looking stuff on the higher tier while your surrogates smear the opponent and work the media, always on offense. In this way, the candidates are never accused of getting down in the gutter themselves while their associates are slashing their opponents’ throats.
Kerry needs to move quickly to the two-tiered strategy himself and get the right people leading it now. Although he has correctly said that he needs to shift from focusing on Democratic primary voters to focusing on swing and independent voters, he needs to also set up the second-tier offensive and turn it loose to keep Bush and Rove on their heels. He has started this to a degree already, with surrogates like Iowa governor Tom Vilsack attacking Bush today on his economic policies. But from early appearances, it appears that Kerry’s team is focusing on the campaign as a “macro” exercise, talking already about media and positive issues, with a secondary emphasis being placed on attacking Bush and keeping him on defense. This, to me, is a repeat of the Dukakis mistakes, where a candidate thought by just portraying himself as better able to run the government would be good enough to convince voters to overlook the smear jobs. Wrong.
Kerry can say all he wants about being ready to respond, but his campaign team is full of people who aren’t experienced in doing to Rove what he is doing to you. Sure, his team is full of Mary Beth Cahill and other Kennedy staffers, as well as other familiar Massachusetts faces. These folks are quite able to run the first-tier, organization and money end of the campaign as they have proven over the last three weeks. And of course he has Bob Shrum, Mike Donilon, and Tad Devine to do the positive media, the good speeches, and the general election electoral counting and planning. But again, this team is perfectly constructed to run a first-tier effort for Kerry to sell himself to voters. And to lose.
Why? Because there is no political killer anywhere on this team heading up the second-tier effort. Kerry needs to get a killer to coordinate with the first-tier folks, but separately planning and implementing an attack strategy and message, designing a coordinated offensive game plan aimed at attacking Bush and Rove on their records and keeping them on the defensive and on their heels, using surrogates and the 527 committees to carry the message. This effort will be part of the campaign, and in my view this year, will be the most important part, but like Bush/Rove, it will not have Kerry’s direct fingerprints on it. It must be launched now by a political killer who has a track record of going on the offensive early and often, driving up the negatives of your opponent so that they are backpedaling instead of attacking and defining you.
Playing the first-tier game will not be enough this year. The second-tier game cannot wait any longer while you fight it out in Wisconsin and after. Senator, they are trying to define you now, and Bush is on his heels himself. Don’t let him recover and push back your way. Get a killer aboard now to run the “other” campaign, defining Bush while Cahill and the others push the first-tier effort aimed at the independents and swing voters. Get the surrogates out there now, like Clark and Gephardt on their issues, and go on the offensive. You are wasting time the longer you don’t run a two-tiered effort.
Anyone have Garry South’s phone number?