Unaccountably, the Bush campaign has not engaged me as a consultant. Perhaps I have been setting my fees too low. But political pundits, like beautiful women, understand that they really want us, just sometimes they're too shy to ask. Of course, as Myron Cohen used to say, we should better give references than samples, but the flesh is weak, so here goes.
In recent years, the half-vast left-wing conspiracy has used a devastating one-two punch against Republican candidates. First, it allows the Democrat to launch a barrage of attack ads with impunity. Finally, the Republican, tired of being beaten about the head by his wife and advisers about "the wimp factor," lashes back with a tentative salvo of return vitriol. At that point, the "objective" press objects, by publishing articles with headlines like "EXPERTS DECRY NEGATIVE CAMPAIGN AS REPUBLICAN UNVEILS NEW ADS."
The next phases are as dreary as they are predictable: Republican withdraws ads, loses Independent votes for being too negative, loses Republican votes for being too wimpy, fires campaign manager as human sacrifice to the spirit of Lee Atwater, loses election, loses wife (if he's lucky; the alternative is perpetual torment).
Consequently, no one cheers louder than I do when we repo those demos, and roll the juiciest negative ads possible. Oh, the joy of revealing that that fake phony fraud pseudo-liberal hires all non-union slave labor underage illiterate Thai girls to do his manicures in the back seat of the limo! So when I advise President Bush to knock off the overtly attacking ads against Kerry, it is not because of fastidiousness about getting blood on my hands.
Rather, it is because I do not want blood on my Brooks Brothers cuffs. It strikes me as less than classy, less than the confident posture that characterizes the winner, less than the breezy insouciance that the incumbent should project.
It is always a fun memory for me to hark back to the time when I was asked by the Federation of Jewish Philanthropies to take the side of traditional Jewish practice in an open debate. It was staged for top Federation donors from the United States who were touring Israel, and it was begun only after we had ingested a bellyful of gourmet food at the top hotel in Jerusalem. My opponent was Joseph Goell, the editorial page writer of the Jerusalem Post, perhaps the most powerful English-language journalist in the country at that time (1989). He not only had the advantage of his greater fame, he also had the sympathy of an audience who shared his views.
The vibe turned in my favor early, and only intensified as the evening progressed. By the time it was over, all the guests were swamping me in congratulation, while he sat and seethed alone. The reason for my victory was simple: I acted calm and relaxed from the outset, while he kept sniping and sneering ever more shrilly. I simply assumed the unworried demeanor of a man holding a winning hand.
(Here's a favorite exchange. JG: "How can traditional Jews claim that one may not drive on the Sabbath if the internal combustion engine did not exist when the Bible was written?" JDH: "How can American cities legislate against crossing at a red light if the electric light did not exist when the Constitution was written? The applications change, not the principles.")
John Kerry may be a guttersnipe, but a President sniping at him in the gutter will be remembered mostly for having been seen in the gutter. The President should be above the fray, smiling indulgently at the precocious little upstart who would presume to try and play with the big boys.
That having been said, there is no reason that the flaws of John Kerry cannot be highlighted in subtle ads that are framed in positive language. The negative points can be conveyed either by implication or by proxy. This requires some skill, but that's why guys like me should be hired in the first place.
Try this sample ad on for size: "President George W. Bush. A President for ALL the people. When our courageous men and women went to fight terrorism and protect our nation, he rallied 88 Senators from both political parties to a historic vote supporting the troops. True bi-partisan leadership. Only the 12 most liberal Senators voted to withhold the money needed for our heroic men and women fighting for our liberty. President George W. Bush. Fighting for liberty. For ALL the people."
Here is a message of leadership, of unity, of taking strong stands, of rallying behind the troops, of fighting for liberty, of caring for all people. Not one word is overtly directed at John Kerry. Yet, all but the least educated voter will know that John Kerry was one of those twelve recalcitrant Senators. And on the off chance that the nuanced message eludes them, you can count on Mr. Kerry's surrogates to wail the incriminating information loudly in protest. Only this time, the positive text of the ad will cause the protest to boomerang.
Well, just a thought. I could offer some more examples, but I hear the phone ringing, so I had better go. This just might be Karl Rove now.