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We Report... You Deride

Saturday, September 06, 2003  
The Turning Worm

I don't plan to talk much about non-political issues. For one thing, I don't have time. For the other, few people pay for my opinions about other issues. But the latest news about CDs is too amusing to skip. And assessments of how crowds behave are up my alley.

The RIAA's semi-annual industry sales figures show that CD sales are down again. To make matters worse, one of the experts in the article points out that this happened even though the RIAA's lawsuits "caused usage of file-sharing programs to drop about 22 percent in the seven weeks after the RIAA announced its plans to sue individuals."

And when the "fear factor" really begin to hit, the story says, sales of pre-recorded CDs plummeted. One analyst thinks the sales figures show that cracking down on file sharing will actually increase the drop in sales.

Yes, Virginia, there is a limit to which you can push the buying public. People see that they're being charged $15 for one CD--even though 25 blank CD-Rs sell for $7.99--so the illusion that you're paying for technology is gone. People will buy if they believe that they're supporting the artist-- but since many musicians are saying that file trading helps them sell units, and pointing out that they only get between 50 cents and $1.25 in royalities and saying that record companies rip them off, that justification is gone.

Thanks to the FCC, there's no diversity on the radio, so you can't find out about new artists for free. (The days when my local station used to play one new album and one classic album uninterrupted every week are long gone.) They've introduced technology that makes it difficult to make copies of the music, so people can't make copies for friends (who eventually buy the CD if they like it enough). People can't even make multiple copies to play in the car or at work, so that avenue of hearing new music is gone.

So the only thing you can do to hear about someone is to go online, do a search for a band and download 5-10 songs to see if their music is any good. If you like the music, you go buy the CD (assuming you can find it, since most stores only stock music by bimbettes). Cut that avenue off, and people run out of new ways to hear new music.

More importantly, they're likely to finally get pissed off-- to the point where they say "OK, fine-- screw you guys. I already have more music than I have time to listen to anyway, and I've got 500 cable channels and the internet to amuse me. How about if I just stop buying CDs altogether and we'll see whose life goes into the toilet first?"

Janice Ian's article points out that the record industry has opposed every technology ever produced, on the grounds it would destroy sales. With one exception--the Digital Audio Tape-- they always failed, and the ability to make higher-quality copies of music more easily always turned out to increase sales. Amusingly, it's their one success that is going to destroy them.

If people had been able to go to the store and buy a product that would let them copy a CD-- just like a cassette let them copy an album-- things probably would have continued more or less like they had been for many years. But when the RIAA prevented consumers upgrade from the casette to the DAT, they started looking for another tool for making high-quality copies. What they found-- the MP3 format and the CD-burner-- has turned out to be much worse.

Another issue, of course, is that record companies have never really put any energy into quality. I can tell the difference between a CD and an MP3 (even one ripped at 320-quality). It's hard for me to listed to a 192-- and the 128 stuff that exists on Kazaa or Gnutella is painful. (I always used to buy Japanese pressings and the Mobile Fidelity reissues.) But since the industry never bothered to make their cassettes sound good, most people's ears got used to limited frequencies, bad signal-to-noise ratios and hiss. They can't tell the difference between the formats, so that;s not an incentive.

Albums used to have really elaborate packaging, with professional artwork and tons of information that you could look at while listening. The labels cut all that stuff back too, figuring no one would miss it, when they switched over to CDs. That took away another reason to buy, as opposed to downloading.

We won't even get into the quality of the music. 30 years ago, the labels understaood that artists took time to mature. It was not unusual to see a band put out 2-3 flawed albums while they developed their sound. Now you get a two-release deal, tops. Every time I see one of these mega acts, I amuse myself by remembering how many albums it took them to get really popular. Today, Bruce Springsteen would have been dropped after his second album (The Wild, The Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle) didn't break through. Aerosmith (two albums), the Eagles (four)-- none of these guys would have made it today. R.E.M. took five albums to get huge and I don't know how many albums Fleetwood Mac, Elton John or David Bowie released before they started selling out arenas.

It's hard to feel sympathy when bad things happen to people who richly deserve it.

6:01 PM

Interesting article in the Times about the amount of life history a candidate should share (or needs to share) with voters. I'm recommending it for the amount of detail about the candidates, not the quality of the analysis. There's only one intelligent comment in the piece and it comes from John Edwards:

"It gives people a reason to believe that when I say I'm going to do X, Y and Z, that I'm really committed to it," Mr. Edwards, a senator from North Carolina, said in an interview in Iowa last month. "What people have to see is how sincere and authentic you are — and I think your personal background is directly relevant to that."

Absolutely right. Of course, the problem with John Edwards is that he is nothing like the character he is trying to portray, as the Times article notes:

Mr. Gephardt and Mr. Edwards have woven stories of their modest upbringings into their campaign speeches; revealingly, there is a 30-year gap in Mr. Edwards' story, which stops about the moment he becomes a wealthy trial lawyer, living in the Georgetown section of Washington.

Maybe it's just me, but every time I look at Edwards, I think of Uriah Heep.

Dick Gephardt has a different version of this problem. He talks a lot about his life; the subjects he talks about are reflected in his positions on issues, But he never personalizes an issue. If you don't explain why an issue matters to you, there really isn't any political gain in return for the time you spend supplying all that personal information.

Gephardt does a very good job of talking about his son's battle with cancer and the $42 per month his mother got as a pension. He ties those things into his policies very well. On other things, he has trouble. Gephardt's daughter is a lesbian, and he has an admirable track record on gay rights. But the two pages on his web site never say a word about his daughter.

The piece has two problems, though, One is that it has quotes from a schmuck professor (from Condoleeza Rice's alma mater, no less) saying that the struggles that Gephardt and Edwards are having--and the success of tightmouthed Howard Dean-- prove that voters no longer care about personal information. He mentions the Clinton impeachment, but also implies that 9/11 has permanently changed the voter landscape.

It's nonsense. You never hear anything about John Kerry's life except Vietnam; Joe Lieberman never says a word about his life and both those guys are foundering. And the reality about the process-- that elected officials live in a fishbowl and campaigns are like steam-driven colonoscopies-- is the biggest reason I'm skeptical about Dean.

It is a hard, cruel fact that, in the United States, elected officials aren't allowed to have private lives. Every mistake you've ever made in your life is in the public domain and fair game for even the most vile forms of exploitation. Every shady deal, every bad romantic relationship, every faus pas or interpersonal gaffe can and will be used against you in the court of public opinion.

I don't like that fact. I think that expecting someone to be perfect is a ridiculous, impossible standard. The voters have a childish fascination with dirty laundry and salacious crap and I wish to hell we could change that. But, so far, that's one of the rules of running for public office. If you want to get elected, people expect to be able to poke around in your personal life, and the lives of everyone ever connected to you.

A candidate who runs without understanding that fact-- or, worse, thinks he can change things-- is destined to die a horrible death, Had Michael Dukakis had a personal relationship with voters, the hit squads Lee Atwater and Roger Ailes unleashed wouldn't have shot him out of the race (Bill Clinton took worse shots and still won). But the Duke only wanted to talk about competence and track records-- when Willie Horton and the Pledge and Boston Harbor wiped that out, he had nothing left.

But at least he got the nomination. Gary Hart and John Glenn didn't even come close. Al Gore and Walter Mondale wouldn't have gotten nominated if they hadn't been chosen to be vice-presidents (they both washed out when they ran for the presidency before that).

Howard Dean never takes his wife out on the trail; we don't know if his kids are hotties or whether his dad is a lush or whether his great-aunt put out like a coke machine. If he can get the nomination and beat W. without that changing, he will have done the Republic a great service.

But you know what? I don't think he can. So I hope, for his sake and his party's, that he doesn't have a whole lot in his closet.

4:20 PM

Friday, September 05, 2003  
More of The Same

I hate horse-race journalism. When the coverage focuses on the new poll results-- who's up and who's down and by how much-- it disrupts the campaign. If you're not ahead, the big contributors get balky after they read a few of them, which means you have to drop everything and stage a few circuses so you can show you're moving up, so they'll turn the money back on.

(To make it worse, you usually have to say what the unhapppy camper thinks you should be saying. Which is usually way off message. The next time you read a wire story announcing, in an astonished tone, that a struggling candidate has savaged another also ran-- and also proposed federal funding for rolfing-- you can assume that a contributor put his or her foot down.)

Debate coverage is even more frustrating. They only quote peppy soundbites-- if you don't have at least one snappy quote, they don't even mention you in the summary. I've seen candidates give outstanding performances-- which paid off in spades down the road-- and get virtually no attention.

I don't look at an early debate as a contest between participants. To me it's a test of your ability to communicate to voters. Three things matter. The most important is content: "Can you distill your message into complete, easy-to-understand answers?" People need to be able to figure out where you stand and what you propose to do about issues just by listening to you. They're going to take those bits and pieces and try to assemble those remarks into a composite picture of who you are.

The second is style: "Can you look and sound professional when you do it?" People judge on presentation. Except for the occasional Jim Trafficant, people judge you on your ability to behave like other candidates--and past occupants of the office. It's mostly a short-term issue-- one of the things that two of the three guys in the pack who are saying basically the same thigns.

The third issue-- which affects you in the long term-- is how well you tie your sound bites to larger themes. Are you in favor of national health insurance because it's a human rights issue-- everyone should have coverage? Are you looking to reduce the paperwork/costs that small businesses pay to private insurers? Or do you feel that national health insurance-- which would get more people into preventative medicine programs-- would reduce the amount of catastrophic illness (which are now paid for by Medicaid)?

If voters know why you support issues, it gets much easier for them to fill in the blanks in their portrait. And if you've thought about stuff like that, you have a framework that you can use to make decisions that arise during the campaign. Stuff always comes up in a long campaign, and voters can and do separate the guys who have a framework from the ones who make up their answers as they go along.

If you want to handicap a campaign, that's what you judge on. Not applause (it usually means you stacked the audience). A fiery soundbite might or might not matter (the question is whether you can tie it into your policies). Attacking (or being attacked) only matters to the extent it ties into your themes. Here's my take on the Gang of Eight (in descending order of performance):

Howard Dean: Looked and sounded like the frontrunner. You'd have thought he'd been given the questions in advance. His answers were mostly on-point and sounded tight and well-reasoned. Didn't bait anyone; just smiled away the jabs. He was also the only candidate who sounded fluent enough in Spanish to justify the effort.

If you're a campaign junkie you might have noticed that some of his answers were inconsistent with his past positions. And if you're a policy junkie, you noticed that several answers were shallow.

But if you just tuned for your first glimpse at the guy, boy he sounded great. And a lot of people probably thought exactly that.

John Kerry: Better than expected. Used anti-Bush humor several times and actually delivered the joke well. Humor is always a winning tactic-- a joke has to be short and pointed. If Kerry can keep doing that, he'll improve his support because it will be easier for voters to get his message.

He didn't make the mistake of trying to explain the history of his decision-making process on issues. He did do the best job of staking out the We need more troops, but no more American troops position. Took a good shot at Joe Lieberman with that, too. He probably didn't win much market share, but it's a second positive event (first was the announcement) that he can build on.

John Edwards: Not a bad performance, but he waves his hands too much. That overheated delivery just underscores the lack of originality in the message.

Edwards also fumbled what could have been the biggest opportunity of the night. Since the debate was sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and held in New Mexico, questions were asked in Spanish and everyone was trying to answer in Spanish. Edwards got a laugh by saying that Bush ran around the country speaking Spanish, but all he had to say on the issue of jobs was "Hasta la vista."

Not bad. But if he'd added one more word-- "baby"-- he would have cubed the impact. That adds a second level, by turning it from an attempt to pander (which, I'll concede, worked) to a quote from a hugely popular movie. And you've got another level--which is tailor-made for your purposes-- because the actor who made that quote famous is a Republican, who is violently opposed to immigration, who just happens to be running for Governor in the state with the largest Hispanic population in the country.

And once you've got that laugh, you can get another by saying "And, boy, he certainly terminated our budget surpluses, didn't he?"Ad if you do that line in an Austrian accent, every station in the country runs it on the news the next day.

Small thing? Yeah. But Walter Mondale blew Gary Hart out of the water with that type of pop culture reference in 1984. Edwards blew his chance to dynamite his way out of the pack. When both a candidate and his staff miss that sort of opportunity, you know he isn't going anywhere.

Joe Lieberman: Not terrible-- he got off a good shot at Dean about trade and fired a second one about tax policy. He also didn't make any horrific gaffes.

His biggest problems are his policies-- he spent a good 30 seconds defending the Bush tax cuts as being good for the middle class. He also insisted that the US needs to send more American troops to Iraq. I don't know what country he thinks he's running for president of.

Bob Graham: I am continually amazed by this guy. He was a successful governor of a large, Republic state. He is a senator with excellent credentials on foreign affairs and defense. But he just doesn't seem to have the ability to speak a sentence that doesn't sound formulaic or is capable of sinking in. It's like looking at a Frank Lloyd Wright house that's been resurfaced with pastel green vinyl siding.

His best moment: He was the only candidate to raise the infrastructure/power failure issue at any length, and he tied the solution to public works and jobs. I'd like his chances a lot more if he could do that consistently.

Dick Gephardt: I can't resist: what a miserable failure. I'm sure all the yahoos who surround him were pounding him on the back when he came off the stage-- an energetic performance always gets the troops excited.

But what did he accomplish? Calling the President "a miserable failure" at a Democratic debate just wastes precious time. The New York Times story on the debate quoted Gephardt for 65 words. 25% of that space was consumed by his sputtering:

"We cannot cut and run. We've got to see that this situation is left in a better place. We have to form an international coalition to get it done. This president is a miserable failure. I some days just can't believe — it's incomprehensible to me — it's incomprehensible that we would wind up in this situation without a plan and without international cooperation to get this done."

I also don't know how you "leave" a situation (which is a time,, a place and a set of actors) in a better place, but that's a secondary issue. There's too much jargon there. If you try to squeeze all the whey out of the cheese, you end up with his first and third sentence and a piece of the fifth:

"We cannot cut and run. We have to form an international coalition to get it done. It's incomprehensible that we would wind up in this situation without a plan and without international cooperation to get this done."

Still no original thought in there, but it's only 37 words-- over 43% less verbiage. That gives you almost twice as much time to talk-- almost doubling your opportunity to try to connect with voters. It's not an accident that Gephardt was the only one who ran over his limit and nearly had to be hit with a tranquilizer gun to shut him up (which always makes you look unfocused and unprofessional)-- he needs twice as long to speak his piece because he wastes so much time.

Dennis Kucinich: Well, at least they said he had some good ideas.

His opponents should hope that Dennis doesn't drop out because he's performing a very useful service-- staking out the area furthest to the left. You listen to him speak, you see what gets applause and what doesn't and you pretty much know how far you can go.

Carol Moseley Braun: It's hard for me to be sure from what little I saw, but Washington looks a little better-- Steve Spurrier has clearly improved the talent at the offensive skill positions, They're not a very good team, but they were playing a patchwork defense with virtually no offensive weapons. Could be a long year for Herman Edwards.

3:45 AM

Thursday, September 04, 2003  
The Great White Dope

Todd Morman's Nine Reasons John Edwards Will Implode is a masterpiece of snarky condescension. Nobody can ever manage to sound as disgusted by a bad presidential candidate as a home-state voter. There's always an undercurrent of "I can't believe you're running for president and still trying to pull this stuff..." embedded in the writing.

One quibble: he doesn't really offer nine reasons. Reasons 1, 2 and 4 are different expressions of the same thing-- Edwards has no grassroots organization, because he thinks he can buy the election with ads and soft money. Reasons 3 and 7 both say "his campaign skills are unimpressive"; 5, 6 and 8 translate as "the positions he has taken have left him without a solid base".

Finally, reason 9-- "Edwards Has no Online Constituency" is self-importantly silly. Yes, Howard Dean has used Internet-based fundraising very effectively . And, yes, blogs are extremely effective tools for disseminating information quickly, widely and inexpensively. And, yes, Dean has also used them brilliantly.

And anyone who seriously believes that all of those things combined are responsible for even 10% of Dean's level of support should put themselves in for a brain implant. If John Edwards and Howard Dean traded campaign apparatuses overnight, it would take about two weeks for Dean to get himself into contention and about a month for Edwards to flush himself back down the toilet.

Tim Russert summed up Dean's campaign beautifully on Sunday's Meet the Press: "It's message vs. no message. Dean is focused. His messages can fit on a bumper sticker. They're clear. You know who he is and you know where he stands."

I haven't taken Edwards seriously since I watched him blow his announcement speech. Edwards couldn't present a single compelling reason to elect him instead of the alternatives. He didn't present a single memorable image or phrase. His presentation of his past was clumsy and hackneyed. He tried to talk about his record and stumbled-- because, as a first-term senator who has spent his entire term in the Senate jockeying for position, he doesn't have one, He kept throwing out phrases that tried to describe the voters that he thinks are his base-- the best he could do was "regular folks."

When you see a bad announcement, you can pretty much write a candidate off.

A presidential primary is a brutally difficult gig. If you count travel time and fundraising calls, the guys work between 12 and 18 hours a day. You're always short on sleep, there's never enough food (what you have time to eat is usually awful) and your nerves get stretched to the breaking point from constant fear of the unknown.

You can't predict what crazy things your supporters or opponents will say or do and you spend most of your on-camera time reacting to them. You have no control over world events or natural disasters. You can spend a month planning and staging an event, and the day before an event, a truck crashes on an interstate and the state police close the highway that 75% of the people of the state use to get there. The day before your major speech on foreign policy, a celebrity dies and nobody pays any attention to politics for a week.

The one chance you get to speak your piece without interference is your announcement speech. It's the only chance you get to say whatever you want to say. You control the length and the breadth and the depth. The announcement speech is the one message you can spend your whole life planning. That's why it is almost always the best speech you give until you get the nomination.

Candidates' messages always develops during a campaign, because the world changes. Some events make the ideas you were planning to express seem foolish or outdated. Other positions become more meaningful than you expected because something happens. Current events can bring your stand into focus and magnify its importance. But you have to have a position before that can happen.

Unfortunately, the only firm position John Edwards has is that he wants to be president. He'll get stomped because he has nothing to offer voters except a houng-dog grin, strings of plattitudes and enough money to bore the poor people of Iowa and New Hampshire to tears by running generic commercials incessantly. I hope Morman's assessment (Edwards will bail by the holidays so he can run for re-election in 2004) is true. It just gives me one more reason to hope for Christmas.

12:50 AM

Monday, September 01, 2003  
My In-Kind Contribution to John Kerry

Today's Washington Post says that John Kerry has too many people giving him advice. I don't know if this is 100% BS or not. I know it is at least 98%.

In my experience, candidates almost always choose advisors who tell them exactly what they want to hear. (Advisors who don't do that get fired.) And, no matter how wishy-washy a candidate is, they can always muster the strength to ignore advice (no matter how intelligent or unanimous it is) that they really don't want to follow.

I find myself fascinated by Kerry's predicament. A year ago, he was the candidate I thought most likely to win. Part of that was because he was the only Democrat with a strong enough record on defense to not have his patriotism questioned. But I also thought he'd learned the lessons of Vietnam so thoroughly that he couldn't possibly make the same mistakes.

But I'll be damned if he hasn't managed to make every single one-- and invent a few of his own. The problem Kerry is having is really quite simple: he made two fairly stupid mistakes that he is almost certainly going to have to correct if he expects to win.

1. He voted for Bush's version of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution.

The similarities between the strategies that Johnson and Bush used to get permission to go to war and the language of the resolutions are striking. I understand why Kerry decided to vote for the resolution-- the only two senators who voted against the amendment got defeated when they ran for re-election.

What I don't understand is why Kerry didn't offer a "Kerry Amendment" that would have allowed him to put his solution on record.

Yes, offering an amendment would certainly have been grandstanding-- a blatant political ploy. It also would have given Kerry cover. If the Bush policy had worked, he could have taken the credit because he voted for the bill. If it hadn't, he'd be able to say "This amendment was what I wanted to do. But when it didn't pass, I had to decide whether I wanted Saddam Hussein removed or not. And even though I had misgivings, I decided we were better off without him."

What he did instead-- make a sweeping, emphatic speech in support of the resolution-- was also grandstanding. And all it did was tie him to the Bush policy-- and its consequences-- with no way to differentiate his position from Bush's if he got the nomination.

2. Having made that mistake, he tried to use his support of the resolution to differentiate himself from Howard Dean.

The people who accuse Kerry of not having any political courage really need to think about this action. Having bet his credibility on W's ability to remove Hussein withot major setbacks, Kerry then went double or nothing by making a number of speeches that told Iowa and New Hampshire voters to use the candidates' positions on Iraq as litmus tests.

As the old Chinese proverb says, be careful of what you wish for-- you might get it. The more things go south in Iraq, the better Dean's skepticism looks. Unless someone finds nuclear weapons or WMD--or we see some nation-building worthy of the last reel of It's a Wonderful Life-- Kerry's position on Iraq is untenable. In the words of a song popular in the sixties, he's waist-deep in the Big Muddy, and the.. well, click the link.

Since I do like Kerry (or did, until I watched him make a mess of his campaign), I'll explain how he can get out of it in three words: Imitate William Fulbright.

Fulbright was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee from 1959. When Lyndon Johnson decided to go to war in Vietnam, Fulbright introduced the Tonkin Gulf resolution. Fulbright managed the debate, squelching what little opposition was being voiced. (He badgered Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson into dropping an amendment to limit the commitment.)

Within a year or two, Fulbright decided that that Johnson had lied to him about both the facts of the Tonkin inident and the depths of his intention to intervene. He soon became one of the most vocal critics of the war. He actually apologized to Nelson, on the floor of the senate, for killing his amendment. And when he got fragged as a traitor and a turncoat and a flip-flopper, he had a very simple reply to his critics:

"The biggest lesson I learned from Vietnam is not to trust [our own] government statements. I had no idea until then that you could not rely on [them]."

Will that sort of comment work now? I don't know. But for what it's worth, Fulbright was re-elected in 1968 despite his dissent. And what took him down in 1974 was his record on Civil Rights (slightly to the right of Trent Lott).

Kerry has made a few speeches trying to use that theme (though he disavowed them when Russert quoted them to him yesterday). If he wants to stay in the race, I'd suggest he make a few more.

PS: Fulbright's most famous speech on Vietnam was made in 1966. Entitled The Arrogance of Power . some parts of the speech still ring true today:

The cause of our difficulties... is not a deficiency of power but an excess of the wrong kind of power which results in a feeling of impotence when it fails to achieve its desired ends. We are still acting like boy scouts dragging reluctant old ladies across the streets they do not want to cross. We are trying to remake... society, a task which certainly cannot be accomplished by force and which probably cannot be accomplished by any means available to outsiders. The objective may be desirable, but it is not feasible....

If America has a service to perform in the world-- and I believe it has-- it is in large part the service of its own example. In our excessive involvement in the affairs of other countries, we are not only living off our assets and denying our own people the proper enjoyment of their resources; we are also denying the world the example of a free society enjoying its freedom to the fullest. This is regrettable indeed for a nation that aspires to teach democracy to other nations, because, as Burke said "Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other." . . .

9:32 PM

Aboard the S.S. Kerry: Awash in a Sea Of Gray

Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo is the first blog I check every morning. He's one of the best of the Washington-based writers; his research and sourcing is impeccable. As an analyst, Dr. J's insights are always intelligent (translation: He agrees with me). Sometimes he's brilliant (I agree with him, and he thought of it before I did). This post, therefore, is worthy of note: it might be the dumbest thing he's ever written.

John Kerry's performance on Meet The Press was dreadful-- far worse than Howard Dean's highly-publicized stumble. Unlike the Dean show-- where Russert was actively badgering Dean; barely letting him complete a sentence-- Russert just handed Kerry the rope and watched him hang himself.

Folks, when a member of the media picks up an old newspaper, reads a really polarizing comment that you said or wrote and says "Do you still feel this way?", you have four good responses:

A. "Yes, Tim, I did say that. I still believe it, by God, and I think events have proved me right. And since you brought it up, let me fire off another couple of barrels of buckshot on that subject-- "

B. "Mr. O'Reilly, I never said that. You're misquoting (or, "they misquoted") me, here are clips from three other qources with the correct quote and let me say it again so there is no mistake--"

C. "For heaven's sake, Chris-- that was ten years ago. That situation was completely different than this one, for this reason and that and these and those. So naturally I'm proposing to--"

D. "Larry, what can I say? Obviously, I was mistaken. At the time, I believed X, Y and Z, it turned out that A, B and C. Here's what I learned from that and what I think now--"

Any of those options work. If you get ten of those probes in an interview, the ideal mix is something like 5 "A"s, two "B"s, two "C"s and one "D". (If you're being interviewed by Faux News obviously there will be a higher mix of "B" and "C".)

No matter what the quote was. Kerry employed the Al Gore defense-- a four-pronged strategy designed to simultaneously do the opposite of the four correct responses:

1. Don't dispute the accuracy of the quote. Immediately begin to defend yourself. This gives the viewer the impression that the interviewer has accurately stated your position at one time.

2. Don't acknowledge the quote proudly and reiterate it. Try to rephrase the comment in terms that make it seem more palatable. This will leave many viewers feeling that you now realize how foolish it was. As a bonus, you will also infuriate the percentage of your supporters who still agree with the position you're disavowing.

3. Don't just say "Hey, I blew it..." Never let the viewer feel that you're a good guy who just made a bad call-- and also force the interviewer to move on-- with a quick, candid admission. Instead, try to explain why your statement was the only reasonable position at the time. Don't just leave the viewer thinking that you make mistakes-- convince them that you're also unwilling to admit them.

4. Categorically deny that your position has changed. No matter what events have occurred since you made the statement, insist that what you said then and what you're saying now are identical. Present a lengthy analysis of how the principles underlying your past statements also support your current position.

(Not only will this explanation make you sound fumbling, disingenuous and self-serving, it will also give the interviewer the chance to torture you further by saying "What you said then and what you're saying now strike me as very different things. Can you tell me exactly when you changed your mind and what, specifically, made you change it?")

The transcript isn't online yet, or I'd dissect a few of Kerry's fumbles. I'll link to the Meet The Press home page so you can review it when it comes up.

Aside from being unconvincing, Kerry's appearance was dull. And that's an even worse problem.

Whether it's federal, state or local, the executive branch of government is always a bully pulpit. The people who get a lot done as the mayor, governor or president are the people who are good at persuading voters, pundits and legislators to do what they are proposing.

Voters instinctively understand this, which is why they're always looking for the best preacher. As long as their positions aren't completely off the deep end, the candidate who says things that voters can (a) understand, (b) agree with and (c) get excited about is the one most likely to be nominated/elected.

The candidate who uses shorter sentences almost always wins. The one who makes concrete statements usually wins. The one who can use humor, or slang or analogies or literary allusions (assuming they're understandable)-- anything to connect with voters-- has an overwhelming advantage. These people are interesting to listen to, they're easy to understand, they get voters to start repeating what they say... and the more people hear their ideas, the more sense they start to make.

When people hear a sea of quibbles and qualifications and defensive language and conditional statements, they associate that with lack of leadership. And the decision they always make is to go with the candidate who seems to know where he or she is going.

The mindset that won the last election was "I dunno if I'm gonna like where George Bush leads me... but he seems like he's a good guy and he talks like he's going to get us somewhere. I know guys who talk like Al Gore aren't going to take me anywhere."

The mindset that's going to win this one is "Where we are sucks and almost anywhere has to be better than here. I dunno where this guy is going to take us, but he's not going to take us off the cliff like Bush will and he's not going to sit passively and let Tom DeLay and Bill Frist continue to suck is down the toilet."

Since 99% of the people who vote weren't watching, in one sense, Kerry's performance didn't mean anything. But since the 1% who do watch are people who volunteer and give money, this was a devastating failure. Based on this alone, I'd be willing to bet that Kerry's fundraising staff have trouble getting their calls returned this week. And if he doesn't start talking in black and white soon, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman-- whose positions, while flawed, are at least comprehensible-- have a chance to step in front of him.

7:25 PM

What About Clark?

I was going to write something about General Wesley Clark, but Atrios beat me to it. I agree with his reason, and I'll add one of my own.

I've been working on campaigns since 1972, and I've learned from painful experience that first-time candidates almost always suck rocks and spit gravel. Their campaigns are almost always DOA the first time the votes get counted-- usually from self-inflicted wounds. No matter how many years you've known the person, how many times he or she has worked on a campaign or how many hours you spend talking about what might happen, you never know how he or she will behave when they actually get into a race.

I was in Ohio during the 1994 U.S. Senate campaign. Everyone expected two first-timers-- Joel Hyatt and Bernadine Healy-- to crush their primary opponents and square off. They were bright, credentialed, attractive, well-spoken individuals, backed by talented staff and plenty of money.

They both turned out to be arrogant control freaks who couldn't take direction or tolerate being questioned by voters or the media. They kept improvising answers--making them look naive and/or uninformed. And when they'd try to dig their way out of the holes, they quickly developed reputations for evading and waffling and flip-flopping.

Mike DeWine whipped Healy 52-32; Hyatt beat an underfunded County Commissioner who was making her first statewide run by only 17,000 votes out of 900,000. In the general, DeWine (who'd gotten 42% in the 1992 Senate race) won 53%-39%. And it wouldn'd have been that close if a third-party wingnut from Operation Rescue hadn't grabbed 8% of the Neanderthal base.

I'm not saying that Clark isn't a fundamentally decent human being or that he isn't qualified to be president, or that he couldn't be a topnotch candidate with a little experience. But the odds of a rookie pitching and winning his first professional start in the political equivalent of the seventh game of the World Series... hey, I'll be happy to take any bets. And the likelihood that someone who thinks he or she can pull that off has their ego in check are even lower.

The successes-- the Hillary Clintons and Jesse Venturas-- are usually beating staggeringly inept candidates. And often not by much. No matter how good they are, they always make a few mistakes. And in a high-stakes race, sometimes one is all it takes.

I'd be the last person to suggest that our electoral process is perfect. It can be bought, it can be manipulated. And, yes, the voters and the media can be godawfully stupid. But I don't think we've reached the point where an amateur with familiar name -- especially an adulterous husband with a penchant for orgies and dope smoking and a taste for pedophilia -- can win a major election.

At least I hope not.

12:12 AM

Sunday, August 31, 2003  
Santayana Was Right

There's one tiny little thing wrong with Adam Nagourney's blathering about the weak Democratic field : according to this CBS News poll (scroll down; it's the tenth listed) two out of three people can't name a single candidate.

And, no, that is not a comment on the weakness of the field. Tomorrow-- the traditional Opening Day of the presidential primary season for the party out of power-- I will officially begin participating in my tenth presidential campaign. In five of the last nine campaigns, the name of the eventual challenger evoked snickers and snorts from the pundits at this point in time:

1968: Nixon (It was Nelson Rockefeller's to lose, with George Romney as the dark horse)
1972: McGovern (Edmund Muskie was "the only Democrat who could beat Nixon")
1976: Carter (Two-man race between Frank Church and Scoop Jackson)
1988: Dukakis (Gary Hart or Dick Gephardt)
1992: Clinton (Mario Cuomo, if he had a death wish)

Three of those five guys ended up winning. And if you don't think Nixon was a joke in 1968, you need to dig up a copy of Jules Witcover's book. In 1968, in fact, both nominees turned out to be shockers-- that was the year Gene McCarthy knocked Lyndon Johnson out of the race.

Of the other four challengers, three-- Reagan in '80, Mondale in '84 and Dole in '96-- were considered to be viable contenders, but not necessarily favorites. 2000 was the only year where there wasn't a wide-open race-- and a big reason for that was that two of the hottest candidates were brothers.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you-- the Internet yada yada yada and the cable channels spew spew. People have been giving me reasons why the cycle is frontloaded and an unknown candidate didn't have time to catch on for the last 30 years. In 1972, people were going to decide early because (a) Nixon and McCarthy had shown the country that anyone was beatable and (b) because the 18-year-olds would be voting for the first time. In 1976, people had become more aware of politics because of Watergate. In 1980, they were going to make up their minds early because of the emergence of cable TV, Nightline and CNN.

And so on, and so forth and I didn't even invoke the primary schedule, which always gets mentioned. The reality is that the level of voter participation has plunged since 1968, and if you compare the recognition polls from the cycles, they show that fewer people can identify the opposition candidates 14 months before election day. The reality is that people are paying less attention to the process and taking longer to make up their minds.

In the words of the old bumper sticker, if you can read this, you're following too closely. If you're paid to be involved in presidential election, or you are a politics geek who can't get enough coverage, the following statement almost certainly seems incomprehensible. But, at this point, most people don't care who's running for president and haven't paid any attention to what they've said or done.

I have a friend who is the president of a politically active labor union in a major city (MLB, NFL and NBA franchises) that is overwhelmingly democratic in a vital swing state. Before he got that job, he ran his county for a U.S. Senator who was seeking re-election and ran the campaign that got the mayor of another major city (MLB, NFL, NHL) elected. Unless he's been watching C-SPAN since we spoke on Friday, he has never heard Howard Dean speak. He needed to be reminded ("Is he the Kerry with the leg or the hair?") about the identity of the guy in second place.

Where's his head at? Well, the economy sucks and he had to lay off a couple of staff people and he might have to lay off another if things don't pick up. And his employers are laying people off and they want concessions on the new contracts while the workers need more money to make ends meet. And one of his kids just got his license and wants Dad to buy him a car. His wife had something strange on her pap test and it's probably nothing but they have to run some tests. And they're talking about building a four-lane road two blocks from where his youngest kid will be walking to school next year.

And you multiply that guy and his wife by about 30 million and that's the typical voter right now. This morning, I got up a little early and I saw Tim Russert make John Kerry squirm by asking him to reconcile his current position on Iraq with the speech he gave on the senate floor on October 9, 2002. My buddy was taking his daughter to her field hockey team's practice.

Think the war in Iraq will change that dynamic? The original quagmire didn't compel Democrats to pick a nominee until June of 1972. Expecting the memory of 9/11 to change voter behavior? Even after Iranians took hostages in November, 1979, Reagan was still one member of the Republican pack.

I'm a little surprised that only 7% of the voters who said they could name a candidate mentioned Howard Dean. But on Labor Day of 1976, Jimmy Carter's standings in the polls was lower than Dennis Kucinich's. I find the positions that Kerry, Dick Gephardt, John Edwards and Joe Lieberman have taken on Iraq to be a little tortured (to be kind) and if they insist on trying to maintain consistency with their earlier positions, they're going to continue to find themselves out of step with the voters and behind in the polls.

But at this point in 1991, the few people who knew Bill Clinton remembered him mostly as the guy who said he would have voted with the majority on the Gulf War but that he agreed with the minority.

The people saying that W. is unbeatable are the same ones who said that his Dad was invincible. They didn't know what they were talking about back then, and they haven't gotten any smarter since then,

If only one out of three people can even name a candidate, then I can pretty well guarantee you that only one in thirty has made a choice that can't be swayed.

With the exception of Kucinich, Sharpton and Moseley-Braun (who have no money, no staff and enough baggage to sink a steamship) there is more than enough time for anyone in the pack to get a clue and start to make a credible enough case to begin winning hearts and minds. And once you get the nomination, all you have to be is better than W.

Whether anyone currently back in the pack has the skills to buy, borrow or stumble across a clue... well, that's a separate issue.

Update: Daily Kos cites a more recent version of the poll thst shows that 66% of the electorate still can't name a candidate. He notes that "Four in 10 Democratic voters said they were satisfied with the current field of nine candidates, while half said they would like more choices" and wonders if the poll or the respondents are defective in some way.

Maybe I'm overly cynical, but my opinion is "None of the above." In my experience, if you ask people a question they can't answer, half will think they're stupid for not knowing and the others get defensive. I'd love to see the names they'd have heard if they asked the unhappy 50% to name the candidate they wanted to see in the race... Probably would have been split between Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Walter Cronkite.

8:40 PM

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