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Swift Boating

If there’s one irrevocable law in politics, it’s that whatever works will be done and re-done until it fails completely.  The stakes for a Presidential include the most powerful office in the world and total expenditures of $10B.  No one is going to run a campaign based on wild new ideas unless they absolutely have to.

So it should come as no surprise that 2012 is turning into a mirror of 2004.  The only thing that seems wrong with it is that the challenger’s side didn’t anticipate and devise an effective counter to this year’s equivalent of a “Swift Boating” – changing what should be your opponent’s greatest strength into their biggest liability.

In case you don’t remember 2004 (and Democrats would all like to forget it) we were in the middle of a war on Iraq over … something, no one knows what.  The Democrats fairly quickly coalesced around a candidate with a record as a bona fide war hero, John Kerry.  He seemed like the perfect man to defuse any allegations that he would be soft on war, giving him plenty of room to criticize Bush for the faltering economy and other issues.

It was not meant to be.

The Bush team sent out a gaggle of proxies to allege that Kerry didn’t earn any of his medals on board a swift boat in the Mekong River delta.  The charges were a bit outrageous, starting with just about everything that had a chance of sticking.  They finally found something that appeared to have legs, a charge of cowardice under fire, and stayed with it until the end.  Kerry never responded to the allegations, having been blindsided in an incredible flanking maneuver.

Coming into 2012, Mitt Romney’s greatest strength was his business experience.  In the middle of a Depression, he seemed like a natural choice to portray leadership on the key issue that would likely define the election.  It was obvious and natural, and despite some nasty contention the party leaders backed their man firmly.

Obama’s proxies moved to counter that he was the “outsourcer in chief”, a charge that never really stuck.  They tried again by alleging he had offshore bank accounts.  They even charged that his “retroactive retirement” from Bain may constitute a felony.  But what really has had legs so far is Romney’s own refusal to release his tax returns before 2010, a simple failing that is slowly being turned into a big issue.  It was recently ratcheted up a notch by Harry Reid saying that Romney didn’t pay anything in taxes before 2010, a charge not denied.

The main difference this time is that Obama’s team is not relying entirely on proxies, using words like “felon” prominently displayed in an anti-Romney ad.  They are still in the stage of seeing what sticks.  What is important, however, is that Romney’s business experience is being vigorously against him – and the response so far has been tepid at best.  It looks like it will work.

This “Swift Boating” technique only works against a challenger who has to introduce himself (it is always a “him” still) to the people.  An incumbent is already known, so the trick is to define your opponent before they get a chance to have a leg up on your own image.  It should stand as a last resort for a politician who is vulnerable, but that defines just about everyone in politics right now.  So it is used a lot.

Why hasn’t Romney responded more vigorously to the charges against him?   The short answer seems to be that he does have something to hide.  But more to the point, their campaign simply does not want to talk about this issue and will stay with their own game plan as long as they can.  They probably still think that business experience is their greatest strength and they simply have to wait it out.

They are sorely wrong.  And it may be too late.

One difference between now and 2004 is the prominence of social media.  Back then, the Swift Boat stories broke on Powerline, a blog that was strangely given credence as if it was a reliable news source.  This time, no one will make that mistake – but facebook and so on are being fed a constant stream of allegations.  It’s working the opposite way, from the campaign down into new media.

But the principle is the same.  Romney is looking more and more like the Republican equivalent of John Kerry, unable to do anything right.  One more month of this and it will indeed stick to him and be far, far too late to counter.  Swift Boating still works, and will be used again and again until it is no longer effective.

17 thoughts on “Swift Boating

  1. It doesn’t seem to be showing in the polls…yet. But I think you are correct that Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns may prove fatal to his campaign.

    • Yes. Rather than address the issue, they seem absolutely desperate to change the subject. They are trying way too hard most of the time to make him sound important. And he, like Kerry, is just terrible off the cuff. What I see is them over-handling him even more in the next month, which will really smell like doom.
      If they had hit this head-on they wouldn’t be in this predicament. They really should have seen it coming.

  2. Erik:

    I disagree with this post more than any other of yours I’ve seen.

    Kerry was more or less a genuine war hero (if you believe in such a thing); the Swift Boat stuff was essentially false and defamatory.

    On the other hand, the portrayal of Romney as a predatory capitalist seems essentially correct. And to suggest that this history, in today’s context, is “business experience” that qualifies him to be president is, with all due respect, nonsense.

    • I didn’t think this would be popular. 🙂
      I’m not commenting here on the truth of the charges, but the process. I agree that Kerry was badly defamed and was a genuine war hero. I also agree (as I’ve said before) that Mitt deserves to have his “business” record scrutinized because it is very much flawed.
      However, what’s likely to stick to Romney is not what I think is the most legitimate criticism. I think the lack of tax returns and the stories that are fantasized out of that information-less vacuum will become the problem. If that goes down, it will not only be the same process that Kerry felt, but much more similar content than even Romney-haters like both of us (yes, both of us!) will be comfortable with.
      Consider this equal parts observation and prediction. I also thought it was time to step outside my DFL comfort zone a bit and try to be as objective as possible. Feel free to tell me how badly I missed the mark. 🙂

  3. I can see your point but I am with Alan on this one. Romney is getting valid criticism and Kerry was slandered. There is a big difference.
    But it is also true that the press is swarming probably because he looks weak and floundering. That does seem like a bit much.
    What was he doing holding fundraisers in other countries in the first place? Why isn’t anyone going after him for that? Campaigns never make any sense to me. They go after the garbage first when there are real issues that deserve coverage.

    • OK, OK, I could have made my feelings on the way Kerry was unfairly hammered more clear! Yeesh. But yes, Romney is under a lot of pressure right now and the press are like dogs – they can smell fear and pee on everything to make it theirs.
      On the fundraisers – I’m looking into that. It seems really strange to me. Has anyone else ever done this? It seems to be a much bigger issue than mis-speaking about the Olympics, for one.

  4. President Obama is going to lose because swing voters are going to judge him on his record. His record is that we are mired in a managed depression and Governor Romney is going to turn around the economy like President Reagan turned it around in 1981. He is going to triumph with Tim Pawlenty as VP. He is going to triumph like Governor Walker did in Wisconsin.

    • Pawlenty? Two extremely white guys doesn’t sound like a very balanced ticket. He can do better than that.
      Oh, I and I disagree with all the other stuff you said, too. 🙂

  5. I think what the campaigns have in common is the essential dishonesty, the lack of educational value, the failure to address the issues facing the country…the evident triumph of demagoguery over logic and decency. Maybe this is what Erik is getting at. Personally I’m more angry with the Dems because somehow I still expect better from them, whereas from the Repubs I expect nothing.

    • I am sort of getting at that, but to be honest I came to this particular post’s conclusion after taking a step back and looking at what is going on. But you are right in that I very much *want* to take a step back and figure out what on earth could possibly come from this $10B venture we’re in the middle of. It seems awfully shallow.
      I tend to be more mad at “my side”, too, because I do expect better. I don’t think Republicans do that, BTW. 🙂

  6. Conservatives don’t put TM after using the term free market. We don’t make up things like saying moral hazard is a pop psychology term. Moral hazard is an economics term.

    Erik isn’t your background chemical engineering, a field that in the liberal view causes pollution and destruction. You had a snide remark about Romney not mentioning his Dad much, but isn’t your Dad a chemical engineering professor. Do you have a different view of 3M now?

    3M is a mulitnational corporation, the kind that liberals love to hate.

    • I do make a joke about everything, even the Free Market (which I both love and fear, I admit!). “Moral Hazard” has become pop psychology, but you are right that it is an important economic term – one that we have failed to heed completely and almost certainly will more in the near future – it is a problem!
      I don’t think I said anything snide about George Romney, and if I did I apologize – he seems like he was a pretty good guy. Mitt could use that a lot more, I think.
      As for 3M, no, I’ve always had about the same view. There’s a balance to making great new things and not screwing up the planet. 3M does a pretty good job, generally, of not doing bad things. They also provide much needed jobs in addition to important innovations.
      So no, I’m not your typical “liberal”. But I do take that side when it comes down to it.

      • Erik, It is a pillar of conservative thought that as Smithson said:

        “3M is a mulitnational corporation, the kind that liberals love to hate.”

        This may be the case for some, it is absolutely untrue with most of us. What we don’t believe in is an unregulated free market.

  7. Well, well, given the magnitude of the water contamination scandal, and the recent shameful increase in hazardous waste burning in Cottage Grove, and the export of jobs, this view of 3M lacks nuance, to be gentle. As for the Smithson rants: too dumb for response.

  8. For a site that prides itself on thoughtful conversation, I can see that this topic managed to tick off just about everyone! I guess I had to do it someday. 🙂 I don’t mind somewhat personal questions, and this is all OK for me. It’s going to be a long campaign, I think, and it will get nastier.
    I want to make it clear, however, that I don’t approve of “my side” bringing the nasty, either.

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