Defining John Kerry

A friend sent me a link to this article over at Yahoo, describing how Bush has scored points by defining John Kerry with a series of negative ads since the end of the primaries. We then saw this article where Ralph Nader, of all people, tells Kerry to loosen up and be himself. As usual, I’m fascinated by the media wars, and by how image is defined in these political battles, as well as the strategies involved. So here’s some thoughts on Kerry’s campaign.

Kerry needs to figure out what he stands for and use that to define himself. Up to this point in the campaign, Kerry has been defined by what he is not. In the primaries, Kerry won because he was not Dean. So far in the general election, Kerry has been trying to run by being not Bush. But that’s not enough. George Lakoff does a good job of explaining how “voters vote their identities, not their self-interest.” (Lakoff’s Second Law). George Bush has created a strong brand that defines who he is. He’s a regular guy that’s for national security, smaller government, and strong Christian values. The fact that each of these claims is patently false has nothing to do with the situation. Democrats can try all day to point at Bush’s record and show that he’s a Washington insider blue-blood, who’s put Americans in more danger than ever and increased the size of government to a size not seen since Reagan. But people don’t listen to facts. They have bought into the Bush image, the Bush brand, and that’s what they vote for. That’s why, as the first of those Yahoo article points out, Bush is trusted by 50 percentage points more than Kerry on national security, despite Kerry’s vast experience in the Senate.

Kerry doesn’t understand Lakoff’s Second Law. He’s trying to get voters to vote for him based on reason and logic. He needs to instead be spending his time creating a compelling story and publicizing it. For one thing, he needs to accept the term liberal and then start the battle to define it. By ducking the question and denying that he’s a liberal, Kerry makes liberal look like a bad word. This is especially ludicrous when Kerry has one of the most sterling liberal voting records in the Senate. Kerry should shout that he _is_ a liberal. Follow Bush’s strategy of solidifying your own flank before going after the middle. Bush is nailing down his religious right flank with the gay marriage amendment. Kerry needs to nail down his liberal left flank by agreeing to actually be a liberal. Then go after the middle by explaining how being a liberal means standing up for the environment, it means treating people with dignity, it means not giving your corporate buddies tax writeoffs worth hundreds of millions of dollars while they lay off 10% of their workforce.

Lakoff’s right. The political process is all about giving yourself an image that aligns the voter’s self story with yours. Interestingly, both sides of the campaign have so far failed to run ads in that vein. Bush’s attack ads on Kerry are surprising in that by bothering to attack Kerry rather than stand on his record, Bush makes his own record look weak and makes Kerry look like more of a threat. But at the same time, Kerry’s response ads have looked just as pathetic; they basically convey the message “Bush is attacking me! Waaaahhhhh!!!” Neither one of them is stating what they stand for. Bush doesn’t have to. His brand is already established in the nationwide market. He can afford to go negative this early. Kerry still needs to define his image. He’s a moderate with liberal social tendencies, with a strong background of supporting the military. That’s an entirely electable position. If he markets it right.

And the first thing he needed to do on that front is take his weak points and pre-emptively strike to remove them from the debate. Unfortunately, he’s too late to do that. His weak points, in my eyes, are his wealthy heritage (and heiress wife), his liberal record (which I think he should exploit rather than hide from), and his “flip-flops” in the Senate (which are mostly a result of actually doing politics rather than talking about it – Bismarck’s quote about “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made” seems appropriate here). Unfortunately, Bush has beaten him to the punch on both the flip-flopping and the liberal record. For a large portion of the country, Kerry is now defined as “one of them“. And it’s going to take a focused effort to overcome that. I just hope he figures it out in time.

Once Kerry establishes his image, and fortifies his weak points, that’s when he can go back after Bush. That’s when he discusses the tragic loss of life in Iraq. That’s when he details the disgusting corporate kickbacks. That’s when he points out the inconsistencies in Bush’s 3 years in office (such as being for free trade, except when it affects the steel industry or other politically important constituencies). But by starting out with those points, Kerry is running the risk of defining himself purely as being not Bush. And defining one’s image negatively is a guaranteed route to failure in American politics. We’ll see what happens…