Thoughts on South African and international politics and culture

Monday, September 20, 2004

Republicans proving themselves better at getting their hands dirty

The Republicans have fought the 2004 US Presidential election very intelligently thus far. They realised early that they would have difficulty fighting on the domestic issues (healthcare, jobs and the economy)and knew that their strength was to fight their campaign on terrorism. All of that is simple, and is no strategy for success, but what they have done so successfully is using sidebar players to keep Kerry off the front page at all costs, and keep terrorism on it.

The Republican party as a whole has got firmly behind the Bush Administration and has followed the party line and personally attacked Kerry and Edwards on every turn. In plain terms, they've fought real dirty, and the Democrats have had no answer. Whilst the Republican party has traditionally proven to be adept at gutterball politics, the usual Democratic strategy has been to remain out of the fray, and appeal to voters on the integrity or values platform. But this year, the level of the fear campaign driven into voters by the Republicans has meant that this using this strategy is impossible. The Republicans have made the stakes too high. If, as a voter, you are told that voting for a particular party could lead to a weakness in security that affects your family, will you accept a response from the other party on the integrity of the messenger? The answer, obviously, is no, you will expect a response refuting the allegation and highlighting what the 'weaker' party would do to fight terrorism. And this is the beauty of it. The Democrats are being forced to respond, and so are being sucked in to talking the Republican strategy - terrorism - and not about the domestic issues.

As a result of the Republican campaigns, US voters are not reading about healthcare and the economy every day, even though they are central issues to them, they are reading about commentary on the dangers of terrorism, the weakness of the Kerry-Edwards policies, and responses to personal attacks made on Kerry. In short, the Republicans have won the headline wars, even if the headlines are negative for them, they're keeping terrorism debate on the front pages, and domestic issues on page 4.

As an example, at a fundraiser in Illinois on Saturday, Dennis Hastert said al-Qaeda would seek to influence the November 2 election and added: "I would think that they would be more apt to go with somebody who would file a lawsuit with a world court or something rather than respond with troops." Asked if he thought al-Qaeda would prefer to see Kerry in the White House, he said: "That's my opinion, yes."

A case in point. It's a ridiculous claim, one that is almost libelous, and what is the Democratic response? "It is disgraceful. There should have no room for this in our political discourse," says Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe. True, but what are US voters talking about on Sunday? This election is fought in the middle, the undecided voters, and merely castigating the messenger is only going to leave doubt in the minds of the undecideds and is forcing Kerry off message. The Democratic campaign is largely rudderless at the moment, with Kerry fighting fires around him rather than campaigning on policies. He has to step away from the allegations, let Edwards handle the Republicans, bring the debate back to domestic issues and stay on message.

I'm starting to be convinced that this election will go back to Bush, because the Republican party has fought better in the trenches, and the Kerry campaign has been sucked in by all the red herrings.