Shop Talk

The volleys of spin out of the RNC, DNC and Kerry campaign over the last few days have been interesting. Stripping aside the zingers and hyperbole, you get a fairly clear picture of the respective strategies for the summer campaign. The Kerry troops are trying a variation on one of Bill Clinton’s best moves, namely preempting criticism of the candidate by hollering “negative attacks!” before that criticism can even be voiced.

That worked to perfection for Clinton against Bob Dole in 1996. Clinton unloaded a polished phrase about how “No attack ever created a job or educated a child, or helped a family make ends meet,” aimed straight at a target group of swing voters (in that case, young women with children) that thoroughly intimidated the GOP political apparatus. Dole, who already looked mean on television, never laid a glove on Clinton over any potential “negative” issue, be it flip-flopping on the budget, Mediscare, Red Chinese campaign money, you name it. Every time one of those issues tried to peek out, the Clinton spin team was ready with a chant of “negative attacks!” The media reported Clinton’s smooth spin over Dole’s badly articulated substance, and the spin won out.

You can’t blame Kerry for trying a winning play again, but I have to wonder whether the tactic will be as effective eight years later. The media is far more fragmented today than it was in 1996. Fox News and the blogosphere didn’t exist, and the three broadcast networks plus CNN had a virtual monopoly on television news. Clinton’s team got a lot of unquestioned spin on the air that would be challenged today (just ask Al Gore, who was clearly flummoxed by the greater scrutiny applied to his statements in 2000 compared to Clinton’s in ’92 and ’96). Making an emotional appeal won’t be enough; Kerry will probably have to respond to criticism on the merits of the argument in question.

Furthermore, it’s safe to say that this election will be held in a more serious environment than any since the early 1980’s. Even if Kerry were as (ahem) slick on the stump as Clinton, he’d have a hard time selling feel-your-pain sentimentalism against a war backdrop–which is, of course, another reason why Kerry is trying to put war issues on a back burner. Plus I doubt very much that Karl Rove and company will be anywhere near as cowed by Kerry’s spin as the Dole campaign was of Clinton’s.

Still, it’s interesting to watch. Kerry and the other Democratic contenders have been spending months attacking Bush in increasingly-shrill and vituperative terms. You can’t help but admire a little the stark audacity it takes to turn on a dime and threaten the GOP against launching “negative attacks” prior to the general election.