Karl Rove’s Playbook: Some Tactical Reflections
Karl Rove’s Playbook:
Ernest Partridge, Co-Editor
The Crisis Papers
March 2, 2004
Suppose a head coach is given a copy of the opposing team’s playbook, a week ahead of the Super Bowl.
Wouldn’t he be some kind of a simpleton if he failed to take advantage of that windfall, and to plan a counterstrategy?
The Democrats have Karl Rove’s playbook, they are into the opening quarter, and while Rove’s team has made a couple of fumbles, his team has formidable resources and is beginning to utilize a series of plays that have proven to be extraordinarily effective in the past.
Meanwhile, that purloined playbook sits unopened and ignored on the coach’s desk.
The GOP “playbook” is no secret. It may be found in the accumulated history of campaign strategies employed with great success by evil political geniuses from Donald Segretti and Lee Atwater in the Nixon and Bush-I eras, to Karl Rove in our own time.
And sure enough, as the new presidential election campaign begins, the same GOP tricks are in play. And yet, the Democrats have apparently devised few defenses or counter-strategies. Instead, unable or unwilling to learn from past mistakes, it appears that they are about to repeat their past debacles.
To change the football analogy just a bit, the GOP is playing Lucy to the Democrats’ Charlie Brown. Lucy is holding the football again, and sure enough Charlie Brown is convinced that this time she won’t pull it away.
Poor Charlie Brown!
And so the GOP strategy is unfolding right on schedule: as soon as the opponent becomes apparent, they define him and put him on the defensive. As with Al Gore in 2000 (stiff, “unlikeable,” habitual liar, “invented the internet,” “Love Canal,” Earth tones), so now with John Kerry (waffling, inconsistent, hyper-liberal and, believe it or not, “a captive of special interests”).
All this despite the fact that no American President in history is more vulnerable to or deserving of negative definition than George W. Bush.
The Credibility Issue:
At long last, Bush’s lies and blunders have seeped through the media barricades and into the public awareness, as his approval ratings continue to plummet. “The Shrub” is on the ropes. Why won’t the Democrats strike. What are they waiting for?
Virtually nothing will cripple a candidacy as much as a public perception that a candidate can not be trusted. Karl Rove knows this, and that is why, in 2000, the GOP concocted a series of lies to “prove,” ironically, that Al Gore was an untrustworthy liar. (No, Gore never claimed to have “invented the internet” nor to have “discovered Love Canal”). Public opinion polls in 2000 disclosed that this GOP slander was quite successful, as was the unmerited portrayal of George Bush as a “straight shooter.”
Today, Bush’s lies stand revealed for all to see. There is no need for the Democrats simply to say, “Bush and Cheney lied to you.” Far better to display those lies in their own voices as they issue from the faces of Bush and Cheney. For example, Bush -- "There is no question we have evidence and information that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, biological and chemical;" and Cheney – "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction." The supply of these whoppers is virtually inexhaustible. (See the recent books by Al Franken, David Corn, and Joe Conason, and Jerry “Politex” Barrett’s forthcoming collection “Big Bush Lies,” to which your Crisis Papers editors have contributed three chapters).
Once a candidate’s credibility is in ruins, so too is his capacity to issue denials. Case in point: the likely return of the military draft, soon after Bush’s projected victory in the fall. Obviously, the Bush neo-con visions of empire require a draft. But if the Bushistas were to admit now that a draft is in the works in early 2005, they would critically, and perchance fatally, damage Bush’s election prospects. So, if challenged, Bush’s campaign would emphatically deny that such an idea had ever crossed their minds.
Were Bush, circa 2000, to issue that denial, a widespread response would be, “well, I believe Bush – he’s a straight-shooter, unlike that sneaky Al Gore.” No more. Today, if Bush says, “there will be no draft – trust me,” a more likely response would be, “yeah sure – like we trusted you about WMDs and all that.”
Credibility, as one wit has said, is like virginity. Once it is lost, it is impossible to get it back. Bush and the Busheviks have proven, time and again, that they can’t be trusted. So the Democrats must remind the public, time and again, that “their President” is a pathological liar – they must “grind in” the credibility issue until it defines Bush, his Administration, and his campaign.
Bush’s lack of credibility is not a “case to be made.” Bush and his crowd have made it for us.
Perception is Political Reality:
In a memorable scene in the movie, “Inherit the Wind,” Matthew Harrison Brady (patterned after William Jennings Bryan), admired to the point of worship by the citizens of “heavenly Hillsborough,” overplays his role and reveals himself as a pathetic windbag, whereupon his public support is immediately punctured and deflated.
“Inherit the Wind” is fiction, derived from an historical event: the Scopes “Monkey Trial.” But there are abundant real-life examples of sudden reversals of political fortune, following a shift in public perception. The fall of Richard Nixon, of course. Before him, Senator Joe McCarthy – weakened by Edward R. Murrow’s courageous exposé, and then dispatched by an venerable old Boston lawyer, Joseph Welch. (“Have you, at long last, no shame, Sir?”).
History also teaches us that apparently rock-solid despotic regimes can be brought down, once a public “smells” anxiety and insecurity in their oppressors, discovers cracks in the official façade, rejects the official propaganda, and senses an emerging community of grievance in the populace. Battista in Cuba and Marcos in the Philippines, seemed secure up to the moment of their downfall. But once the masses came to believe of their revolution, “¡si, se puede!,” the despots were finished.
The offenses of George Bush and his regime against the American public and its political traditions are myriad and profound. The Bushistas lie repeatedly and without scruple, making claims that can readily be proven to be false. They accelerate the transfer of national wealth from those who produce that wealth to those who own and control the wealth. They dismantle social services and educational institutions, despoil the natural environment, and openly dismiss and defy scientific fact and expertise. They ruthlessly violate the mandates of our national charter – the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They wage aggressive war against nations that are no threat to us and they overthrow sovereign and democratic governments – all this in violation of international law.
Even so, at this moment, among a bare majority of us, these grievances are held privately, and are publicly regarded as “unfashionable,” in the face of the corporate media’s celebration of “our warrior President.” Meanwhile, the legal, professional, intellectual and scientific elites, though well aware of enormity of the transgressions of the Bush Administration, are strangely and inexcusably silent.
This is an unstable and unnatural condition of the body politic, subject to explosive change.
In politics, perception is reality. Thus George Bush is as vulnerable as we, the People, are willing to believe him to be. Bush, Rove & Co. are desperately aware of this vulnerability, and they are determined to see to it that we are not. As the poll numbers continue to drop, as news of the lies are exposed, as the grievances percolate up to the surface of public awareness, and as news of growing international contempt seeps in through our borders, the Rove campaign machine and the mighty media Wurlitzer must realize that they are in the path of a potential avalanche. Perhaps they will be able to hold the slope in place for the requisite eight months. But if that slope fractures, begins to move, and then accelerates, no force on Earth will spare them from being swept away.
The Power of Ridicule.
A public that is slow to respond to evidence and structured argument, will respond instantly and with relish to ridicule.
Remember Michael Dukakis and the tank? The Howard Dean Scream? Ed Muskie and the (alleged) weeping over “the Canuck letter?” Poppy Bush and the checkout scanner?
Karl Rove remembers. This is why, in 2000, the GOP piled on Al Gore with the “inventing the internet” scam. Of course, it was 100% certified slander, but no matter. It served its purpose: Gore was made an object of ridicule, however undeserved.
No politician in memory is more deserving of ridicule than George W. Bush. Only by the grace of a protective media, has he escaped his well-deserved comeuppance.
If Al Gore can be seriously damaged by reports of lies he never made, how does Bush escape public mockery for the his transparent lies, known far and wide?
Now that the shameless showmanship of Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” fly-boy stunt has been exposed – in embarrassing contrast to his “flight” from his National Guard obligation – the Democrats have been handed a pot of pure publicity gold. So why don’t they cash in? Where are the cartoons depicting Bush as begoggled Snoopy atop the dog house. (Seen any? If so, send them to me).
Could it be that the Democrats are swallowing the GOP line that “the public will not tolerate a belittling of their President”? If they are taking their campaign advice from the GOP, then the Democrats are worse fools than I dared to imagine. “Respect for the office of the President” mattered not one iota to the likes of Newt Gingrich or Ken Starr.
George Bush – incurious, adolescent, unread, inarticulate George Bush – is an object of derision, contempt and ridicule throughout the world. Time to bring that message home. Time to laugh at this pitiful figure. Time to send him back home to Crawford.
Then we can go about restoring “respect for the office of the President of the United States.”
I see by my notes, that I have much more to suggest about political tactics for the coming campaign. But this is about as much space I am accustomed to use in my editorials.
And so, for the rest, “to be continued.”
Accordingly, I close with this most urgent plea to the Democrats and their apparent candidate, John Kerry. Tear up your old campaign playbook, then think and act anew. Begin by studying the GOP’s playbook. Your opponent is a captive of dogma, habit, and fixated thought, so he is almost certain to repeat his tactics of old – as indeed he is doing today, as this new campaign begins.
Above all, take the offensive now – boldly, massively, and persistently. Once your attention is distracted by incoming GOP salvos, you may be put into a defensive posture from which you will never escape. If you do, your cause is doomed.
The best defense is a strong offense. No Administration in our history has been more “target rich” than this one. No Administration has had more iniquities to defend and, at the same time, less justification to offer for their misdeeds.
The GOP will have upwards of a quarter billion dollars in their campaign war chest, and the solid support of the corporate media. They also have their record of the past four years to defend – a record of lies, broken promises, unconstrained greed and corruption, remorseless slaughter, and the betrayal of our Constitution.
You may not have Superman on your side, but you do have Truth, Justice and The American Way. You have on your side the rising rage of a public exploited and betrayed, and the support and good wishes of an international community, bewildered by our turn of bad political fortune, but mindful of our enduring accomplishments in science and technology, the arts and humanities, in economic well-being, and in political enlightenment. Put all this to work for you.
Then pity the poor GOP.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" ( www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" ( www.crisispapers.org).