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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Steak and Sizzle

If the climate of hysteria at their convention is tempting some GOPers to become overconfident, it’s also driving some Democrats into unnecessary panic. I can’t count the number of people I’ve talked to this week who are beside themselves with frustration that KE04 isn’t sufficiently “fighting back” against the crap being thrown against the wall in New York. And at least among those old enough to remember, they invariably cite the example of the ’88 Dukakis campaign, which “just stood there” and let Lee Atwater and the boys tear them apart.
But aside from the need for “rapid response,” there were two other lessons to be learned from the Dukakis defeat, which ought to be kept in mind today.
The first is that you can’t always choose the issues landscape. The Duke’s strategists didn’t fail to respond to the attacks on their candidate because they were sluggish or stupid. They were in thrall to the idea that you should campaign on “your issues” and not “their issues.” When the elder Bush’s thugs went after Dukakis on defense or cultural issues, he invariably responded with his message of “good jobs at good wages,” on the theory that talking about defense and cultural issues would just play into their opponent’s strength. Suffice it to say it didn’t work.
I mention this point because I’m also hearing a lot of Democrats complain that Kerry set up the Republicans for this week’s assault-and-battery by talking too much about national security–“their issue”–instead of hammering away on health care and the economy–“our issues.” Now think about it, folks. Does anyone really think the GOP Convention was ever going to be about anything other than national security and the war on terrorism, no matter how much Democrats yelled about other issues? If the Democratic nominee had failed to talk about “their issues,” the assault would have been even worse. And if that nominee had not been a war hero with a reputation for toughness on national security, it would have been much, much worse. Aside from the guaranteed focus of the GOP on this issue, there’s also the small problem that the public cares about it as well. The Republicans may be fanning the flames of fear all right, but there was already a fire.
The final lesson of the Dukakis campaign that should be remembered right now is that how quickly and how aggressively you respond to attacks is less important than what you say. “Rapid response” doesn’t do much good unless the response itself is credible and compelling. You gotta have the steak, not just the sizzle. When Dukakis got around to responding to the Bush-Quayle attacks, his answers were too often lame-o. (Remember Mikey in the Tank? Remember how he handled Bernie Shaw’s Rape-of-Kitty hypothetical on the death penalty?) Serving up these lame-o responses faster or at a higher volume wouldn’t have done much good.
Sure, Kerry needs to respond quickly and aggressively, but when he does, he needs two things above all: (1) a series of crisp, one-sentence responses to all the “flip-flop” charges, and (2) a simple, compelling Fall Message (not just a slogan) that enables him to connect his responses to the broader set of issues that he wants to talk about and Bush can’t.
I’m pretty sure the KE04 folks understand this. The rest of us nervous Democrats should let them work it out and not pressure them into meaningless frenetic activity.

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