by Gary North
Politics is mostly about "them vs. us." Elections hinge mostly on pocketbook issues, with a little revenge thrown in for flavoring. This year, there are a lot of pocketbook issues, and more revenge than usual.
But there is another issue: the visibly growing disaster in Iraq. American voters have not been told about 10,000 Iraqi civilians, nor would most of them care. They did not care when Clinton's embargo on Iraq killed half a million Iraqi children, according to several estimates. What's another 10,000 or so? Callous, are we? You bet. But not toward our own soldiers. When the reserves start being shipped in, the American public will pay even more attention. These weekend warriors have wives and families back home. This was not what they signed up for.
The daily news reports on deadly bombings have had their political effect, and this will continue. Happy talk from White House spokesmen about the President's program being on schedule have the familiar ring of General Westmoreland's press conferences 35 years ago.
Lies don't sell, once they are perceived by potential buyers as lies. This fact leads me to a brief discussion of direct-response advertising.
One of the fundamental principles of direct-response advertising is that you must tell the truth — not the whole truth necessarily, but truth where it matters to the buyer. What you say must also sound like the truth.
One way to get your large, money-producing truth to sound believable is to admit a small mistake. If the reader thinks, "Hey, this guy is being honest" by admitting a small mistake, he tends to be more receptive to the ad's large promise.
This principle of "admit a mistake" is invariably ignored in political advertising. A politician is told by his handlers that he must present himself as the purveyor of gospel truth. This, despite the fact that every voter begins with this assumption: "He's lying." Every voter looks at a political campaign ad in the same way that we looked at the old "Joe Isuzu" auto ads starring David Leisure. Joe would make some outlandish claim, and at the bottom of the screen, these words would appear: "He's lying." The only trouble with those entertaining ads was that they never got across the main point: Why someone should buy an Isuzu.
Kerry is basically for the Iraq war. He has not offered even a hint that he thinks we should pull out our troops. So, he is in a weak position to go after Bush on the Iraq question.
Second, he voted to support Bush in Iraq. The length of his "What I thought I was voting for" response to John Edwards' question indicates that he would like the public to forget that he did, in fact, give Bush everything Bush wanted. So did every other Congressman. Bush had whipped up war fever by adding Iraq to the 9/11 scenario. As we know now, there was nothing to the equation of Saddam and Osama, but Bush wanted Congress to believe it, and in the midst of war fever, he was able to persuade the voters.
The al-Qaida/Iraq link was a lie — not a mistake, but a self-conscious lie. Now that lie is being identified as a lie. The Sunday night interview on 60 Minutes with Richard Clarke, the White House's expert on anti-terrorism under Bush, Sr., Clinton, and Bush, Jr., regarding his new book, Against All Enemies, probably will cost Bush a million votes. 60 Minutes devoted half the show to this interview. It was devastating. It will sell a lot of books. It will set the liberal media's agenda for weeks to come.
The weapon of mass destruction claim was also a lie. It was faked from the beginning. Republicans at the top now verbally shrug their shoulders. "So what? We got Saddam, didn't we?" That answer is undermined daily by the car bombs. How many American lives was "getting Saddam" worth? For how long? How many billions of dollars per week? "No oil, no peace, no democracy." The voters are wondering: "Is this worth it?"
John Kerry now has a golden opportunity. He can run the following ad. He won't, of course. It would require that he admit that he made a mistake. No politician will do this in public.
What was his mistake? He believed the President of the United States. Of course, so did the voters. But a Senator is supposed to know the truth, stand up for principle, and vote against the overwhelming majority view of the folks back home. Isn't he? He is supposed to sacrifice his career for the sake of The Truth. Isn't he? Well, maybe voters won't go that far. But at least they think he should make a few gurgling noises before sending Americans off to die.
Kerry can win this election if he can get Republicans to stay home out of embarrassment. But this is not the goal of political ads. Political ads are designed to get the candidate's party members so greedy or angry that they will come out in full force to vote the straight party ticket. This strategy has not worked since the "get Goldwater" election of 1964. These days, the voters are too smart for the old "get out the vote" strategy. They plan not to vote. Fewer and fewer voters bother to vote.
Campaign ad writers refuse to acknowledge this fact publicly by designing ads to persuade the opposing party's members to stay home. They know that the tactic can be used by the other party. A low voter turn-out seems to de-legitimize democracy. The politicians' religion is democracy. So, they adopt negative campaigns, because revenge works and political envy works. But they will not adopt "stay home, voters."
The direct-marketer knows that it is futile to spend money in an attempt to get people to do what they don't want to do. You will go bankrupt if you try. You must therefore provide rational reasons to get people to do what they already intend to do. Because they intend to buy from someone, you try to persuade them to buy from you.
So, the smart political strategy would be to give your opponents' party members a good reason to do what they really want to do anyway: stay home.
A good way to do this is to show them that the President deliberately fooled them. Nobody wants to think he has been suckered. He resents being suckered. So, Kerry should remind Republicans that President Bush and his minions deliberately "put the shuck on all you rubes." But Kerry must not call them rubes.
There is a way he could do this. He could identify himself as Rube Number One. That way, he could say, "If he suckered me, who should have known better, there is no way you could have been expected to spot the deception."
So, his speech would have four points:
Show Republicans that they were deliberately deceived by President Bush.
Remind them that liars should not be rewarded for lying.
Admit that he does not expect most Republicans to vote for Democrats.
Remind them that they can still get even: just refuse to vote for anyone for President. Leave the box blank.
If Kerry can make all four points believable, he can inflict enormous damage on Bush's campaign strategy. He can make Bush appear to be a liar. That will poison the well for every campaign ad Bush runs. "I'm George W. Bush, and I approve of this message" will do him more harm than good.
I call the following ad, "Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire."
The setting: a wide angle shot of Kerry in an office. He is seated at a desk. To the right of his desk is an American flag on a stand. Behind him is a large emblem of the U.S. Senate. Somewhere visible there is a military emblem that most veterans will recognize. The camera zooms in, focusing on Kerry's face.
"I'm John Kerry. I'm running for President. I'm also a United States Senator. I'm here to tell you about a huge mistake I made. I voted to support President Bush in his confrontation with Iraq. I did this because I believed him when he said that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I also believed him when he said there was a connection between Iraq and the al-Qaida terrorists who attacked America on September 11. President Bush got the full support of Congress because we all believed him.
"Now it turns out that he was wrong on both points. There were no weapons of mass destruction. There was no al-Qaida/Iraq connection. The CIA, the FBI, and his advisor on counter-terrorism told him this immediately after 9/11, but he and his political advisors decided to ignore this information.
"He fooled Congress. He fooled the voters. He has never admitted this in public.
"I am therefore asking Republicans tonight not to vote for him. I know most Republicans will not vote for me because I'm a Democrat. But if you vote for a man who deliberately deceived Congress about the supposed threat that Iraq posed to Americans, which turned out to be no threat at all, then you are saying, loud and clear, that this is proper behavior, and any President can do this and get away with it if he is a member of your party. This is a bad message to send to any President, at any time, for any reason.
"Every American should go to the polls and vote, but every American is allowed to leave one box blank. It's a way to send a message to Washington: 'Tell us the truth, or else I won't vote to re-elect you.'
"That's what I am asking Republicans to do in November. Leave the President's box blank. If you think the American people deserved to be told the truth before our troops were sent into battle, leave the box blank."
Then the screen switches to a voter card that has both boxes blank. Underneath, the screen says,
For Republicans who wanted to be told the truth
WHY IT WON'T HAPPEN
Every Democrat candidate would howl. "You're telling them to vote Republican, except for one office: yours." Technically, this is correct. In fact, it is not correct. People go to the polls every fourth year to vote for Their Man for President. Take away this motivation, and marginal voters will not go to the polls at all. Embarrass them about Their Man, and they will stay home.
This speech is calculated to embarrass millions of Republicans regarding Their Man. It reminds Republicans that no one should vote for anyone who will not level with the voters. Implicitly, this is a call for everyone to stay home every time, since politicians spend their entire careers lying to voters, but the ad will not be perceived this way. It will be perceived as a way to get even with a big fat liar. In politics, revenge is a major motivator. Here is a way for a Democrat to mobilize Republicans to take revenge the easy way: don't vote.
It will not happen. Kerry would have to admit that he made a mistake. No politician will do this in public. They all think, "I'd rather risk losing the election than admit to an error."
But it would sure be nice, just this once, to see one of them admit to a mistake.
March 23, 2004
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