Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 26, 2004
POLITICS: From My Blog To Jonathan Alter's Ear

Back on July 28, at the height of enthusiasm for the Kerry campaign, I noted this, from Josh Marshall's site, about a conversation Marshall had with Michael Moore at the Democratic convention:

I ask him what he makes of all of this. No attacks on the president. Not even any mention of the man's name. . . .

[A]s he breezes by he says, "Oh, Really? I liked it. You don't even have to say it. Everyone knows how bad it is."

Think what you will about Michael Moore or evening one of the convention, I think that sums up precisely what this event is all about and the dynamic on which it's operating. I've seen a slew of articles today arguing that the Democrats must energize their 'base' while not alienating the swing voters John Kerry needs to clinb from the mid-40s past 50%.

But this strikes me as a tired conventional wisdom that has little to do with what's actually happening here. . . .

Among Democrats, the rejection of this president is so total, exists on so many different levels, and is so fused into their understanding of all the major issues facing the country, that it doesn't even need to be explicitly evoked. . . . the primetime speeches were actually brimming with barbs, and rather jagged ones at that. They were just woven into the fabric of the speeches, fused into rough-sketched discussions of policy, or paeans to Kerry.

Perhaps it's a touchy analogy, but like voters who understood the code-words Republicans once (and often still do) used to flag hot-button racial issues they dared not voice openly, these Democrats could hear the most scathing attacks on President Bush rattling through the speeches they heard tonight.

My reaction:

Josh Marshall and Micheal Moore hit the nail on the head with regard to how the Democrats really feel about why this convention has been so vague and unspecific in its attacks on President Bush, to the point where I hardly think the name "Dick Cheney" or familiar hobby-horses like "Halliburton" or "Enron" or "Weapons of Mass Destruction" have been mentioned: they think it's so self-evident that Bush is a disaster that they don't even believe it's necessary to explain why. I'm not sure that's a winning approach, but I do think Marshall and Moore have put their fingers on what their side is thinking.

As it turns out, this is rather precisely the problem: Kerry didn't think the American people needed any persuading. Thank you, big media/lefty pundit coccoon. Now, months later, Jonathan Alter has noticed the problem:

Shrum's grand plan wasn't complicated. He figured that with most voters believing the country is on the "wrong track," all that Kerry had to do was establish his credibility as a potential commander in chief and he would win—hence the "bio" convention. No need to respond directly to Bush ads sliming him for wanting to cut the same weapons systems that Bush's father cut. No need to explain how the Iraq war had been botched. No need to discredit Bush at all, because he was already thoroughly discredited.

Oh, well. The Shrum strategy was the product of short-term thinking (the assumption that Bush's unpopularity in the period of the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal would last until fall) and was reinforced by the sealed and often smug world of Democratic politics, where it was taken for granted that Bush was bad, bad, bad, and any reasonable person already knew why. Shrum correctly realized that a Michael Moore-style sledgehammer would do little to sway undecided voters who don't loathe Bush. But Shrum wrongly extrapolated from that point that Kerry had no need to indict Bush in easy-to-remember phrases that would stick. He once told me as much, and that name-calling wouldn't work in post-9/11 presidential politics.

That was wishful thinking.

Of course, it's a bit late now to fix the problem. But turning to the meta-issue, amazingly, this isn't the first time Alter has followed one of my trains of thought. On September 9, I wrote:

The Bush camp is floating a trial balloon about maybe only agreeing to two debates instead of three. My suspicion is that Bush is posturing about ducking a third debate so as to (1) signal to the press that he's winning (the underdog always wants more debates, so if the dynamic is Kerry pestering Bush for debates, the media will draw that conclusion) and (2) subtly lower expectations (Kerry can't simultaneously accuse him of being afraid to debate while building him up like Lou Holtz before the Navy game).

Of course, for this to work, the Democrats have to fall into Bush's trap and start complaining about Bush's reluctance to debate and pressuring him to do three debates.

Alter's analysis, for the September 20 issue of Newsweek?

Brace yourself for the most tiresome part of the campaign—the dreaded "debate over debates." President Bush's team prefers only one face-off instead of the three that have been scheduled. But if John Kerry—who wants as many debates as possible—argues the point too publicly, he'll walk right into another Bush trap. Bush has two reasons for debating debates: First, to lower expectations for his own performance, as he did brilliantly in 2000. The Bush crowd has gone so far as to claim that Kerry is the "Cicero" of debaters—"the very best in modern political history." If that sinks in—with the help of Kerry charging that Bush is afraid to debate—then all Bush has to do is show up and do reasonably well (as he has done in every debate since he entered politics) and he'll beat the expectations spread and look like the winner.

Now, neither of these is the most original or incisive point in the world, and I actually got the first one third-hand from Michael Moore. But it goes to show how replaceable a guy like Alter is when an amateur writing in his spare time can spot the same trends weeks earlier. As Bill James would observe, that makes Alter a replacement-level pundit, and he should probably be paid and treated accordingly.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 10:57 PM | Politics 2004 | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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