The subject of Donald Rumsfeld came up while IM’ing with a friend a couple days ago. We were talking about the various accusations flying around, and my friend asked: “i wonder what bush’s real agenda is in keeping rumsfeld around”. My response was “He’d have to find another scapegoat when more allegations arise. He keeps rummy around, Rove makes sure everything sticks to rummy, Bush jettisons him to demonstrate his leadership in october. That way he gets both credit for loyalty (to rummy) and then leadership and making the hard choices. It demonstrates his character to the midwest.”
No real point in posting this except that in the unlikely case that the world really is as cynical as I sometimes think, it’d be nice to be able to point to this.
It is interesting to talk about the importance of character, especially in a lot of the Midwest battleground states. I’ve been reading Moral Politics, a book by George Lakoff, on (to quote the subtitle) “How Liberals and Conservatives Think”. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist and the book is his attempt to understand political thinking in terms of different cognitive models of reality. In particular, he concentrates on moral systems and shows that conservative and liberal thinking tends to cluster around two alternative family models which he calls the Strict Father system and the Nurturant Parent system. The Strict Father system takes as its basic assumption that the world is a dangerous place, full of evil, and therefore it takes a strong leader (the Father of the family) to protect his children, teach them the self-discipline and self-reliance necessary to survive such a world, and command their obedience until they grow up. It’s a tough love, “spare the rod and spoil the child”, reward-and-punishment system. The Nurturant Parent system is one where all children are to be supported and encouraged to find their fulfillment, a system of less hierarchy (both parents share parenting duties) and more inclusion.
Lakoff spends the book going into detail on how these different worldviews affect politics, but I’ll get into that more when I finish the book and review it. The difference that I want to focus on here is that liberals tend to focus more on the issues, and conservatives tend to focus more on the man, when voting. In a world of strict hierarchy that is implied by the Strict Father model, it’s important that the man in charge is of strong character, one whose moral beacon is unquestioned, and whose authority is undeniable. The liberal viewpoint is more encompassing and consensus-driven, so the person is not as important as the issues where everybody wants their say. So how does this relate to the election?
Let’s go back to the example of Rumsfeld. Bush is essentially running his entire campaign on the character issue, as a strong leader who will stay the course, who will do what is necessary to protect his people from the evil around them. He is running as the Strict Father of Lakoff’s system. That means he must demonstrate his character in a variety of ways to show that he is worthy of the people’s trust. Rumsfeld provides a good opportunity to demonstrate two facets of character. By sticking with him now, Bush demonstrates his loyalty, his unwillingness to give up a comrade under fire. In October, Bush asks Rumsfeld to resign. He will have demonstrated his loyalty by that point, so Bush can use the firing as a chance to show his leadership and ability to make the “hard choices”. If Rove does his job, then any other allegations that appear over the next few months will be diverted to Rumsfeld, making Bush appear squeaky clean, and able to use the whole incident as an electoral advantage in demonstrating his character to dubious Midwestern voters.
Viewing things through the Lakoff lense, we can see the several mistakes that John Kerry is making in running his campaign. I covered several of these before, but I never get tired of this stuff, so I’ll go into more detail. One point is that Kerry has a reasonable grasp on the liberal population, given their fear of Bush on the issues, so he does not need to concentrate as much on them. But his failure to develop his personal narrative could be fatal in the Midwestern swing states. If Bush is running on character, Kerry needs to do so as well. And if Kerry focused on developing his own story and getting it to the voters, he should be in great shape. He’s a decorated war Veteran, with years of public service, running against a former alcoholic drug-abusing draft dodger who hasn’t earned a single thing in his life. Unfortunately, Kerry took the wrong approach. He concentrated on bashing Bush before developing his own story, which makes him look weak and negatively opportunistic.
If I were in charge of the Kerry campaign staff, I would punt on all of the issues and the getting out the liberal vote and Bush-bashing. There are plenty of grassroots organization who can and will do a better job of it (Moveon.Org is the best example, but there are many others, such as Howard Stern and Michael Moore). Kerry needs to be focusing his efforts on publicizing his personal narrative and putting it in terms of character and the “Great Man” theory of politics. His campaign can afford to stay positive, because there are plenty of other organizations that will do the Bush-bashing for him. And he needs to stay positive, to give people a real alternative to vote for, somebody whose character they feel they can trust. It’s especially important in this election because if people feel that they are choosing the lesser of two evils, they will just stay home and not vote. And given the threat to their way of life, you can be sure that Bush’s supporters will be out in force. So Kerry needs to get people excited to vote for him, to get that Clintonian buzz going. I remember being astonished in 1992 by how many people I knew were genuinely excited by Bill Clinton the man. Kerry will never be the natural politician that Clinton was, but he could stand to take lessons from him on ignoring the issues and selling himself as the product.
Anyway. I’ve wandered far afield again. Someday I’ll get bored with ranting about politics. Maybe.