Monday, October 04, 2004
Which complex of issues should Kerry emphasize? The debate over whether Kerry should focus on foreign or domestic policy has attracted considerable attention, and presents a real strategic dilemma. Both sides have a strong set of arguments, and it think this is an issue that needs to be sorted out.. For the sake of this post, I will call those advocating a focus on foreign policy "hawks" and those who wish to concentrate on domestic issues "doves" (NOT to be confused with the traditional meanings of those terms. Most of the foreign policy advocates are pretty dovish.)
Okay, the hawks have forceful reasons for emphasizing foreign policy. Politically, they argue that the disaster in Iraq has a great deal to do with Bush's declining numbers. Furthermore, it is vital for any challenger in wartime to establish his commander in chief bona fides. The centrality of foreign policy in the last two weeks has coincided with Kerry's recovery in the polls. Why take the ball away from a player with a hot hand- stick to foreign policy, where Bush's incompetence has created a credibility gap. Talking about domestic issues gains nothing, since the Dems are going to get the liberal domestic policy votes anyway. Focusing on domestic issues might cost us some of those dissatisfied Republicans. Like it or not, Iraq is the THE political issue of the year, and we need to act accordingly.
The doves have some responses, though. Bush's decline has as much to do with the economy as anything else. The more the Democrats can shift the terrain to the economy and health care, the better they will do. It is unnecessary and a waste of strategic resources to focus on Iraq. We are never going to win on foreign policy, but we don't need to. All that is required is to pass the threshold of credibility, which Kerry's debate performance has done. If we continue to harp on Iraq, we are guaranteeing that Iraq and Terror will be the subjects in the voters minds when they enter the ballot box. That is not a recipe for a Kerry victory. Plus, the perception of Kerry's ambiguities rests solely on foreign policy issues- we can neutralize the flip-flopper charge by concentrating on health care and the economy.
So who has the better set of arguments? Both do. No I'm not waffling. Remember, elections are an act in public persuasion. To do so, a candidate needs to tie his criticisms together in a comprehensive whole. He (or she, one day) needs to paint an overall narrative, with each specific criticism fitting into the greater design. Kerry needs to focus both on Iraq and the economy & health care. Bush is a failure in both arenas in precisely the same way. In both cases, his neglect of detail, unwillingness to think through the issues, fealty to corporate interests, and sheer incompetence have led us to our current pass. What we need to do is make the voters realize that Bush's performance at the last debate was no fluke- his arrogance and ignorance is part and parcel of why he is a failure as a president.
Once that frame is established, all we have to do is explain how Kerry is different. Then we start measuring curtains for the White House.