To: Senator John Kerry
From: Tom Schaller
Date: September 7, 2004
Re: Out-Roving Rove
Your reputation is that of a closer. Well, it's closing time, Senator. Stop worrying like Al Gore did about how the editorial pages will judge you. Rove and Bush don't give a damn whether the Beltway snobatorium thinks they play gutter-level politics; indeed, many are happy to smile cheerily as they get knee-deep in the sewage.
The point is that the Bush team knows history will only remember the Electoral College results. That said, it's long past time to start giving Rove the Rove Treatment by going directly after the president's strengths.
Essentially, Bush has four:
- His image as a successful, wartime commander-in-chief;
- His reputation as a strong leader;
- His image as a straight-shootin' tough-talker; and
- His family name and connections.
Here, respectively and respectfully, are suggestions for how to Rovertime each:
- Reconnect Iraq to the war on terror. Bush repeatedly claimed (past tense) that Iraq was central to the war on terror - until, of course, the warrants for and management of that war went afoul. Now he wants to disconnect Iraq because his Iraq approval ratings are consistently lower than (and, thus, have steadily weakened) his approval ratings for the generic war on terror. Don't let him get away with that. Keep repeating that the president told America that Iraq is central to the war on terror, and by that standard, he's doing a terrible job on the war on terror. It's really that simple. To make the reconnection hurt, start repeating two very simple facts: (a) according to Defense Department counts, the rate of military fatalities is higher since Saddam Hussein was captured than before his capture; and (b) according to the State Department, the number of global terrorist incidents and deaths is increasing, not decreasing. Have surrogates repeat these two facts endlessly, followed by the question: "If American fatality rates are higher this year than last year, and terrorist incidents are increasing worldwide, what kind of progress in the war in Iraq and the war on terror is the president talking about?" Even the stupid-ass media will be able to follow this argument. And, from this point forward you and your surrogates should cease referring only to "the war on terror" but instead and always jointly as "the war in Iraq and the war on terror." This is political jujitsu, pure and simple; you must turn Bush's best weapon back on him by re-linking Iraq to the war on terror.
- George Balker Bush. Strong, resolute and decisive - whatever. Reports indicate that western Iraq is becoming an Afghanistan-style swamp, and Afghanistan remains an Afghan-style swamp. And why? Because the truth is, that at the critical moments in both countries, Bush went soft. The Islamic terrorist threat in Iraq is growing because, in the moment of truth in Falluja, Bush balked; meanwhile, the Afghan situation remains unstable and Osama at-large because, in the moment of truth in Tora Bora, Bush balked. So say so. Then, in order to complete the balker trifecta and remove once and for all the giant rhetorical monkey from your back, you also need to flip the script on the $87 billion war appropriation. This will be the hard, given that ridiculously senatorial phrase you uttered about "voting for before voting against." The solution is to point out that doing "whatever it takes" to support the troops, as the president claims he always does, means having the courage to find the money for the $87 billion - rather than balking, by adding the costs to the national debt that returning soldiers, their kids and grandkids will be handed after they've returned from combat. You'll have to educate the public a bit about what's happening in Afghanistan or Iraq, and how congressional budgeting and voting work; that's tougher than blurting out Bush-style platitudes. But if you can't educate the electorate a bit, you don't deserve to win anyway.
- Scared Straight. Forget Bush's fleeting gaffe about the war on terrorism not being winnable; he's not going to trip up again. Besides, micro-angles like this or the band-aid purple heart flap are thin threads onto which to hang your campaign message. (N.B.: Your staff must end its fixation on minutiae.) You need a strong, simple and damning line of attack. That said, the dirty (but open) secret the conservative national media know, yet won't dare utter, is this: Bush is petrified to speak in public about most everything, and especially about policies and his specific record over the past four years. He's scared to do press conferences; scared to allow anyone who hasn't signed a loyalty agreement into his campaign events; scared to debate you; scared to talk about how his prescription drug plan is backfiring among seniors and fiscal conservatives, his immigration policies are backfiring among Latinos and social conservatives, his steel tariffs and tax cut policies are backfiring among blue-collar white workers in manufacturing states, and his No Child Left Behind and stem cell policies are backfiring among suburban white women. The key point is not the specific policies or economic statistics; to mention them, or call for weekly debates, is to fight smaller skirmishes instead of the larger war. Rather, push the macro message that Bush is petrified to talk about any of it. You and your surrogates should use these exacts words: not "doesn't want to," but "scared and petrified." Make the media repeat them, thereby forcing the Republicans to refute your charges in your language. And you need to do this now, pre-emptively, because Jim Baker came on board specifically to negotiate you down to two debates and Bush-favorable rules. You need all three; if you have established the "president is petrified" storyline in advance, no matter how scared Bush-Rove may be of debating three times they'll be more scared of being labeled scared for backing down. And when the tough questions during the debates on the economy, health care and Iraq are asked, and Bush's answers and eyes start darting around, he will ratify the scared-and-petrified criticism with his verbal and non-verbal responses.
- Royal Treatment. This last strength - the family dynasty and its connections - is different from the others because it's an asset the campaign likes to utilize (see Baker arrival, above) but not discuss publicly (notice that father and brother never spoke from the stage in NYC). Now, you don't need Euclid on your campaign staff to recognize that somebody named George Bush has been on six of the last seven Republican national tickets. I repeat: that's six of seven, every year since 1980 but 1996 (aka, The Kennebunkport Regroup Year). Um, how about pointing this out, say, daily? Try: "There's been a George Bush on every Republican ticket since 1980. That's six of the last seven elections!. The president's dad was on the ticket in 1980, 1984, 1988 and 1992. After taking a brief family hiatus, George W. Bush was on the ticket in 2000 and again this year. And if you think the reason Jeb Bush was quiet at this year's convention means the mantle is going to be passed next to Rudy Giuliani or John McCain, folks, you're not paying attention to how the Bushes run the family monarchy. Maybe George Bush slept through his American history classes at Yale, but I seem to recall that we fought a war 200 years ago to free ourselves from a monarchy led by a guy named George." The presidency is not won on esoteric arguments about this or that economic report; sadly, it's won by convincing Americans - 70 percent of whom cannot identify their member of Congress - with schoolyard political tactics. Bush is the guy who gets the girls to do his homework, and still gets to be class president because he is a star on the baseball team and sits at the cool table at lunchtime. But enough kids, though scared of him, still hate him. Play on that base-level animosity (filmmaker John Hughes made a career doing so), because the "enough with the Bushes already" sentiment offers a strong motive people can access readily once they're inside the voting booth that the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics report doesn't.
Once you take these fights straight at Bush's four strengths, and discipline yourself and your surrogates to sing from the same libretto, all the advantages on the domestic economy, environment, health care, and so on will provide the margin you need. Or, you can keep micro-refuting which Swift Boater was where, doing what, on which boat 35 years ago, offering symbolic salutes for the camera, and have the staff release another memo about how much the latest Halliburton fine was - and lose.
Oh, and in closing, I will reiterate a recommendation I made earlier, in regard to television ads, Senator: Because you may not be the best person (and in fact, may be the worst person) to advocate for yourself, your positive ad campaign between now and election day should borrow a page from the "everyday surrogates" media approach used by Stevens & Schriefer to defeat Bob Shrum client Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in the 2002 Maryland governor's race.