Man Without Qualities

Thursday, March 11, 2004

A Report From The Commedia dell'arte

How good is Peggy Noonan? She's good. Very good. More than very good - and at many aspects of writing, pulse-taking and the highest level strategy. She sees the big picture - and she's great with even the smallest telling details in communicating the message. In short, in matters national, political, and electoral, she is the very model of a modern Major-General!

So when her item in today's OpinionJournal assumes a rather technical, groping aspect and fails to lift the fog from the current campaign scene, one is left mostly with the conviction that such fog is very thick indeed, and that nobody can lift it at this point. Consider, for example, these two passages:

In only one week, a central and significant Bush charge against Kerry has hit its target and stuck. It's that he's a flip-flopper who'll vote this way and that with an eye only to short-term political gain. Kerry supporters, most famously in the New York Times, have been forced to spin this into the fantasy that Mr. Kerry has a special sense of nuance and subtlety--that he appreciates "shades of gray." Well, mist is a shade of gray, and so far a lot of voters think he's lost in it. Mr. Kerry can't escape 20 years of conflicting votes and statements. But he can try something that may subtly gives an impression of strength and conviction. ....

The common wisdom the past weekend was that the more people talked about the Bush ads and 9/11, the more the president would benefit. The repeated linking of Mr. Bush and 9/11 only underscores his history and leadership. The common wisdom this weekend will be that last week's common wisdom was wrong. Bush got no discernible bounce from the spots, though in the long term he may. It's too soon to say.

But if Mr. Bush's getting no discernible bounce in the polls last week is enough to cause Ms. Noonan to conclude that it's too soon to say whether the ads were effective, then why is that same lack of discernible bounce not sufficient to cause her to conclude that it is also too early to tell whether the central and significant Bush charge against Kerry has hit its target and stuck ..., that he's a flip-flopper who'll vote this way and that with an eye only to short-term political gain? After all, if this central and significant Bush charge against Kerry has hit its target and stuck, then wouldn't one expect the President to rise against the Senator in the polls? Of course, the President's current standing in the polls it isn't really clear - perhaps there was discernible bounce for Mr. Bush. But, even if there was bounce, how does one tell what caused it? Was it the ads that caused the bounce? Or was it the central, significant, well-targeted, sticky charge that did the bouncy deed?

Ms. Noonan makes some excellent strategic points: Don't make the country mad at John Kerry, make them laugh at John Kerry.

John Kerry is hilarious. He is a self-parody as complete as one is likely to find on a political stage anywhere. Pompous. Gloomy. Without personal insight or intentional humor. Mean. Self-important. Inconsistent. In short, he is a perfect addition to the Commedia dell'arte - the kind of character that has amused millions for hundreds of years! And there are signs the public already senses his true character. How else could the President have secured such traction against Mr. Kerry with a pale witicism about the Senator having been on both sides of so many issues? The humor here is not in the President's comment, the humor is in Senator Kerry's inflated caricature of himself - humor released by the comment like the pricking of a toy balloon.

Ms. Noonan also notes: President Bush needs his team to be alive and awake and hold its own hearings on issues that are important to Republicans on the ground.

She is referring to GOP senators and congressmen, but the urgency lies even more with the President's own campaign strategists. In that regard Ms. Noonan's imprecation reads like a platitude with a disturbing and recent application. Yes, she is correct to observe that with tens of thousands of relatives of 9/11 victims, there have to be some who are Democrats or dislike Bush. But a campaign team that was sufficiently alive and awake would have been fully prepared to answer the Democratic "cynical exploitation" charges with prepared, tested retorts and a large number of 9-11 survivors (including some from the Pentagon) who approved of the President's ads and condemned the Democratic dissenters. Those things came eventually, but well out of the most appropriate news cycle. They should have been prepared in advance.

Mr. Bush has supposedly vowed not to repeat his father's mistakes. His father's worst campaign mistake in 1992 was probably not demanding that he and his campaign be sufficiently alive and awake in anticipating what Bill Clinton's people (who were very alive and awake - indeed, in an odd way, full of passionate intensity) might do to him and in responding to what the Clintonistas actually had done to him. That kind of thing - unlike national economic matters - is completely within the President's control. It was therefore disturbing, to say the least, to see that particular error of the father repeated at this stage by the son. That shouldn't be allowed to happen again.

As Ms. Noonan concludes: Guys: wake up. There's a battle outside. Or, as Nick Lappos put it: If you find yourself in a fair fight, you didn't plan it properly.

UPDATE: President Bush campaign will reportedly release the first negative ads against John Kerry today. One hopes that the President's campaign staff has spent a good deal of quality time and effort (1) reminding themselves that the mainstream media and Senator Kerry will be hostile to the ads, (2) determining ahead of time what form the hostility may take, and (3) preparing retorts to the hostility. So far, the AP reports:

Meeting with congressional Democrats on Capitol Hill, Kerry dismissed the ads, saying they "have nothing to do with health care for Americans, nothing to do with jobs for Americans, nothing to do with education for our kids, nothing to do with cleaner air or cleaner water, nothing to do with making America safer in this world. They can't talk about those things because George Bush doesn't have a record to run on, he has a record to run away from, and that's what they're trying to do."

It should not be hard to reply to that fatuous response. Indeed, the response should be easily assembled from what already in the pre-release bag.

Comments: Post a Comment