TPM’s Psychological Insight

I almost never link to Talking Points Memo on the theory that everyone reads it anyway. But today Joshua Micah Marshall has outdone himself.

I think this explains a lot.

Talking Points Memo: by Joshua Micah Marshall: One way — perhaps the best way — to demonstrate someone's lack or toughness or strength is to attack them and show they are either unwilling or unable to defend themselves — thus the rough slang I used above. And that I think is a big part of what is happening here. Someone who can't or won't defend themselves certainly isn't someone you can depend upon to defend you.

Demonstrating Kerry's unwillingness to defend himself (if Bush can do that) is a far more tangible sign of what he's made of than wartime experiences of thirty years ago.

Hitting someone and not having them hit back hurts the morale of that person's supporters, buoys the confidence of your own backers (particularly if many tend toward an authoritarian mindset) and tends to make the person who's receiving the hits into an object of contempt (even if also possibly also one of sympathy) in the eyes of the uncommitted.

This is certainly what Bush's father did to Michael Dukakis and, sadly, it is what Bush himself did, to a great degree, to Al Gore.

In other ways, Bush's bully-boy campaign tactics play to the his strengths, albeit unstated and unlovely ones. Many of the polls of the president have shown that while people don't necessarily agree with the specific policies he's pursued abroad many also intuitively believe that there's no one who will hit back harder. There's some of that 'he may be a son-of-a-bitch but he's our son-of-a-bitch' quality to the president's support on national security issues.

This meta-message behind the president's attacks on Kerry's war record is more consequential than many believe. So hitting back hard was critical on many levels

This nails, better than anything I've seen elsewhere, why some people you might expect to know better support GWB. Given this, it also explains how Kerry must combat it — despite the conventional wisdom concerning mud-wrestling with pigs.

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10 Responses to TPM’s Psychological Insight

  1. What threw me was the report I heard on NPR today of Bush asking for Kerry to agree with him that negative ads should stop coming out of the 527’s. No mention of the mainstream mudslinging, of course, but this, i had hoped, was some sign that Kerry’s tactics were working. Maybe I’m biased.

  2. Altoid says:

    I wouldn’t be dismissive by any means, but I think Josh’s is a good statement of an old truism that some Democrats lost sight of for reasons unknown. It was stated in so many words in Plunkitt of Tammany Hall among other places. There are two elements to it– if you aren’t willing to stand up for yourself, your friends won’t have any faith that you’ll stand up for *them*, and second, if you want something, you have to show people you’re willing to fight for it. Josh stressed the first, and rightly so given current circumstances. But the second is really more basic, and it’s where I think Dukakis and Gore fell short.

    “Willing to fight for it” means willing to fight dirty if that’s what it takes. It was supremely important during the Cold War, when Americans wanted to know that their leader could be as mean and nasty as he had to be. Its importance has returned because of 9/11, but even before that it was something Bush worked on in 2000, and not just with the voters.

    One of the things I’ve liked about the Kerry campaign is that it has often indicated its willingness to fight dirty if Bush took the low road. They’ve given BushCo any number of warnings about it, and they’re also, I think (or hope), reserving some really heavy ammunition for the road ahead in case they need it. Just think what smelly stuff the BCCI investigation might have turned up, for example. Kerry, having been ahead of Bush in the exact same circles, doesn’t seem to be intimidated by him in the least. This is exactly what the Dems need.

  3. Dem says:

    I think it was always Kerry’s intention to hit back hard on this issue. But, he was able to delay his response for two very good reasons: First, he knew that the attackers are liars. So, he knew that investigations of their claims would turn up lots of counter-evidence, as it has. Second, the attack was launched early in the campaign, so a rapid response was not necessary. The undecided voters are not going to decide in August, they will decide in October or November.

    By delaying his response, Kerry has done one very, very important thing: He’s tied Bush to the mud-slinging while staying above the fray himself. The reason this is important is that he can create this as a “theme”, much like Rove and Bush created the “Gore as serial exaggerator” theme in 2000. Bush-slings-mud-when-the-chips-are-down. Get this established as a theme, and when Rove launches his next slanderous attack Kerry will be able to simply say “see, he’s doing it again”. Instead of he-said/she-said, you create a situation where one candidate, Bush, is on the defensive to prove that he’s not a mud-slinger.

    Kerry hasn’t established this theme yet, but he’s well on his way. First, during his period of almost “non-response” many investigators have shown that the Swift Boat Liars have very close ties to Bush. Second, Bush made the mistake of not condemning the ads, but Kerry quickly condemned the counter-ads. [ would have been fine if it had simply defended Kerry, but it also took pot shots at Bush’s National Guard service.] Now you’re hearing the pundits talk about this distinction. Even the Bush defenders are talking about it, if only to pretend that no real distinction exists. Third, Kerry has made the tie-in between the liars and Bush the core element of his response. The use of the term “bring it on” in this part of this speech was clearly designed to make sure that the Bush tie-ins to the Swift Boat Liars were part of that night’s sound bites.

    [Regarding the question of whether the Swift Boat Liars are actually lying, there really isn’t any doubt. It is clear every one of them hates Kerry for his war protests. But the records and accounts at the time don’t back up their factual assertions about Kerry’s actions. Indeed, it’s worth noting that John O’Neill had a televised debate Kerry back in 1971 and didn’t mention most of the current charges. Sounds like a case of “discovered memories” by John O’Neill.]

  4. Chris says:

    I can understand the mud-slinging strategy if one is going after an incumbent. After all, the challenger has to make a case that the current administration is not doing its job effectively. But I can’t understand the Republicans going to the well on this yet again for several reasons:
    1. Bush is now the incumbent, and is obligated to communicate as effectively as possible how good things now are under his leadership. The mud-slinging is distracting from this message, and–IMO–sends the message that Bush is not confident of his record and must therefore wage a smear campaign to deflect attention from this fact.
    2. The specific attacks made by Bush, many of them, would remind the electorate of Bush’s own weaknesses. The attacks on Kerry’s service in Vietnam remind voters that Bush used his father’s influence to stay comfy at home. The claim that Kerry hasn’t any senatorial accomplishments leads one to wonder what Bush has accomplished. As noted elsewhere, he hasn’t kept any of his campaign promises except for a tax cut for the rich. So Kerry himself doesn’t have to throw any stones, as Bush’s supporters keep broaching topics that are embarrassing to the President and are doing Kerry’s work for him.
    3. As Dem noted, Kerry can easily put Bush in the wrong by asking him repudiate his own supporters who get carried away with their imaginations.

    If anyone can explain to me why Bush and his supporters think the mud-slinging will work, I will listen eagerly!

  5. Altoid says:

    Chris, apparently the theory goes something like this: key poll numbers that Rove tracks religiously are either going down or just too low for comfort. That would include things like right track/wrong track, deserves re[?]- election, and so on. So BushCo has to figure he isn’t going to win on the basis of wide support outside the die-hards. Well, for all those people who have reservations about Bush or just don’t want him back, what about the other guy? Is the other guy acceptable? If he can be made unacceptable, then people either don’t vote, or hold their noses and vote for Bush. Such is the theory. If you don’t like the guy who’s in there now, you have to think his potential replacement is at least acceptable.

    So the whole play is to throw up so much shit about Kerry that people stop asking whether it’s true or not, but automatically, Pavlovianly, associate Kerry with bad things and hence don’t vote for him. It’s not so much the content of the smears but the fact that they’re made so constantly– as in advertising, repetition makes the association. BushCo has done it before; I forget who on another blog has pointed out that this is the family MO when they’re in trouble. So there’s lots more to come, and Kerry was absolutely right to ignore the content of these charges and point the finger at Bush’s campaign.

  6. p.lukasiak says:

    (mumbles under breath mode) why is it that people like Josh Marshall are given credit for being so slow on the uptake. The REAL progressive community has been making the same points for months about the nature of the Bush campaign, and the need to fight back agressively. I mean, if Marshall were to preface his remarks with “OK, I’m obviously an idiot since this took take so long to reach the working part of my brain…” he might deserve some credit for being honest. ‘

  7. Dem says:

    Altoid is right. The intent is to try to get the middle-of-the-roaders to hold their nose and vote for the devil they know, rather than a possibly-worse alternative. Similar tactics were used successfully in the California governor’s races of 1994 and 2002. The incumbents (R-Wilson, D-Gray) were generally unpopular, the state economy wasn’t great either year, and they didn’t have much in the way of accomplishments to trumpet. Both appeared vulnerable in early polls. Both went negative on their opponents, who were largely unknown (Kathleen Brown in ’94, Bill Simon in ’02) and won by safe margins. Of course, both Brown and Simon did their best to shoot themselves in the foot but that’s part of the hoped-for result when you go negative.

    Note that in both cases the central theme of the negative campaign was that the challenger was too “extreme” (Brown as too liberal, Simon as too conservative). Hence, the RNC talking point (lie) that Kerry is the most liberal Senator.

  8. pgl says:

    I do read Talking Points on occassion but not often enough. Brad DeLong also noted this very, very good discussion.

  9. Mojo says:

    Altoid; The willingness of a Democrat to fight dirty to win an election gave us the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” and we all know where that led. There really are times when, if you have to cheat to win, it’s not worth winning. I’m not saying Kerry shouldn’t fight back or that he can’t win by doing so, I’m just saying that if he fights dirty, we all lose no matter which of them wins.
    I also have a bit different view on WHY the GOP has gone so negative, so early. IMHO their view is that, if the campaign gets really negative on both sides, that will turn lots of voters off. A low voter turnout helps the incumbent, especially a GOP incumbent since their base is so loyal that most still don’t think even Nixon ever did anything wrong. Sure, if the smears work and they don’t take any splashback, that would be their first choice, but they believe they win either way. The only scenario where they lose is if their dirty tricks reflect badly on them while their opponent still looks relatively clean. If that actually is correct, responding vigorously to attacks without going negative elsewhere is the winning Dem strategy.

  10. Altoid says:

    Mojo, I absolutely agree about the turnout thing, in fact I think it’s been a consistent GOP tactic for quite a while now. If they can make politics and politicians feel dirty enough to ordinary people who would like something good to come out of an election, some of them will just get so disgusted they’ll stay home. It’s a close parallel to what happened when Reagan and his people were trashing Congress all those years in the 80s– when Gingrich and his crowd finally got control of Congress in 95, they couldn’t do much with it, largely because they’d destroyed its reputation so thoroughly before. They really are the kings of short-term thinking.

    About fighting dirty, maybe I didn’t put it clearly enough. The Gulf of Tonkin wasn’t fighting dirty in the sense I mean, it was just an out-and-out lie. It was partly for partisan advantage, but mostly for protection– LBJ didn’t want to have the China-lobby types all over him about losing Vietnam. It wasn’t something he did to be a wartime president all wrapped up in the flag. In fact he ran as the peace candidate in 64.

    What I mean is stuff that shows people you *really* want to win. That desire can come across in a lot of ways, and it matters because people translate it to how well the person will stand up for them once in office. I happen to think it’s one reason why otherwise sane people think Bush has “character.”

    A winning candidate has to have at least a hint of ruthlessness showing somewhere. It’s all over Bush, Clinton and LBJ clearly exuded it, Bush the first didn’t show it, Reagan did, Nixon did, Carter only sometimes early on. It’s especially important when the commander-in-chief role is being put front and center as it is this year. You can’t always predict where the ruthlessness is going to show or not show, but it can’t hurt candidates to defend themselves vigorously. When Dukakis was asked a question involving physical harm to his wife he sort of said “Aww, Bernie,” and that moment became emblematic– how could someone like that stand up to the bad guys?

    That’s why I think Kerry going after Bush personally, and in the way he phrased it, was the right thing to do. (In effect, “Bush is too much of a wuss to say these things himself,” implying that he’s two-faced and hiding behind his money and somebody else’s skirts.) I think from here on the campaign ought to soft-pedal the complaint to the FEC, because stressing it will look too much like going to teacher, and have its surrogates out there tirelessly and in great detail laying out the Bush ties to the swift vets group. Kerry’s now made it a story, independent sources are confirming what he said, and until the next outrage he ought to not spend much time on it in speeches, but talk about his programs instead.

    By “dirty” I also mean that if BushCo keeps peddling smear, they have to know that Kerry won’t hesitate to release some of what he knows about them. I think there’s a lot to know and I think he knows a lot of it. He’s signalled them he’s willing to put it out there. But I think he’s smart enough to escalate only when they do.

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