On Kerry's flip-flops, Bush is framing the guilty.

Political ads dissected and explained.
Sept. 30 2004 5:31 PM

Windbag Surfing

On Kerry's flip-flops, Bush is framing the guilty.

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A lot of Democrats I know are shaking their heads and asking why their side seems perennially less effective than Republicans when it comes to presidential campaigns. The self-congratulatory answer one often hears is that conservatives are more ruthless and more willing to lie. I think there's some truth to that, but these commercials speak to what is surely a bigger distinction: The GOP simply plays the political game better than the Democrats do. Republican media consultants make more biting and memorable ads. Their operatives run slicker and smoother conventions. Their strategists develop stronger, clearer messages. And their candidates stick to those messages in a more disciplined way.

A big element of the GOP's superior skill is the technique it has refined for depicting Democratic candidates in terms of a simple, troubling vice—and then reinforcing that portrayal relentlessly and pervasively. In 2000, the Bush team did Al Gore in with the charge that Gore was prone to boastful exaggeration. At first, this seemed a pretty weird and marginal critique. Who cares if a politician exaggerates his accomplishments—don't they all do that? What's more, many of the specific attacks were baseless. Gore never really took credit for inventing the Internet. He didn't really claim to have been raised on a union lullaby that hadn't yet been written when he was a baby. A number of Gore's other infamous howlers were equally dubious.

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But there was enough truth to the underlying portrayal for it to stick. While politicians habitually exaggerate their claims and accomplishments, Gore did so with more chest-puffing than most. And once the Bush campaign laid the groundwork for the case that he couldn't be trusted, Gore's minor errors and even comments intended as jokes became additional evidence for the prosecution. Gore's campaign, which was far less effective than Bush's in the classic, pre-Clinton Democratic way, was never able to dispel such claims or to find a similar "character" hook to hang his opponent on.

What Karl Rove & Co. are doing to Kerry is remarkably similar to what they did to Gore. Yes, Will, these two ads are unfair in all the ways you point out. Kerry wasn't fudging when he said he voted for the $87 billion before he voted against it. He was articulating, clumsily, the perfectly sensible position that the Iraq War should be paid for with tax dollars, not financed with more government borrowing. But this line has now become Kerry's version of "I invented the Internet."

The myth that Kerry was equivocating when he said that will probably never be cleared up, because it supports a deepening impression that people have of him in general. The much-repeated $87 billion quote is a fiction that gets at the larger truth that Kerry tends to talk out of both sides of his mouth. If Bush charged Kerry with being lazy, or a liar, or not understanding foreign policy, the charges wouldn't stick, because those complaints aren't grounded in reality. But because these ads pick up on something recognizable about the Democratic nominee, the distortions don't really impair their effectiveness. Bush isn't accusing an adulterer of bank robbery. He's accusing a bank robber of some heists he didn't commit, along with a few he did.

The other reason these ads work is that they're part of a consistent and well-executed strategy. Bush regularly ridicules Kerry as a trimmer on the stump. Bush's surrogates make the same point as often as they appear on television. Independent expenditure groups, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, have played off the same idea. Remember all the delegates who brought plastic sandals to the Republican Convention and chanted "flip-flop, flip-flop"? That wasn't spontaneous humor. It was another expression of a thought-out plan to portray the Democratic nominee in a certain way. These ads reinforce that same message in a variety of tones. "Windsurfing" mocks Kerry ironically, with shots of him in his goofy vacation get-up and the "Blue Danube" waltz playing in the background. "Searching" hits him more caustically, ending with the words, "How can John Kerry protect us ... when he doesn't even know where he stands." 

Does this kind of caricature work? The front page of today's Wall Street Journal has a story about "persuadable" voters that describes one John Hay, a retired engineer in Missouri. Mr. Hay doesn't like anything about Bush, but can't bring himself to vote for Kerry because "he's always doing an about face" on issues. I wonder where John Q. Public could have gotten an idea like that.

Kerry, like Gore, has attacked Bush in a number of plausible ways, but not in any consistent or resonant way over a meaningful period of time. Is Bush a right-wing ideologue or a clueless puppet? Is he a liar or a fool? There are many ways to skin a cat. But by not settling on a single angle the way his opponent has, Kerry has not only failed to foster a negative image of Bush. He's reinforced his own image as a politician who can't decide which way to go.

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.