How the Democrats will lose: being stupid

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Time’s Swampland blog provides a nice example of a way that the Democratic party can lose this election by being a little too smart for its own good.

The DNC – not the Obama or Clinton campaigns but still – apparently tried to muddle up McCain’s visit to New York City by pointing out all of the times he was against earmarks that would have brought money to the Big Apple.

The McCain people are happy to have such a conversation because it gives them a chance to reiterate how their candidate is against “pork” and “wasteful spending.” Time’s Michael Scherer thinks this line of attack could have merit:

But the DNC attacks do strike a nerve. Many of the billions in so-called “pork” that comes out of Congress go to things like bridges and after-school programs and foreign aide that lots of Americans support. It’s not all Woodstock Museums and “Bridges to Nowhere.” Rhetorically, McCain likes to talk as if all the billions of dollars now being spent on earmarks can just be eliminated from the federal budget, but the bottom line is if that happened, there would be an outcry among local communities. (In the fine print, McCain says he does not mind some of this spending as long as it goes through the regular budget process, a fact that seems to undermine his claims of billions in savings.)

Rarely in presidential politics do you have a battle in which opponents attack each other with the same message. Both McCain and the DNC want you to know that McCain wants to cut pork projects. Before long, pollsters will tell us who is winning debate among swing voters. In the meantime, we can expect many more maps from the DNC, and more talks by McCain about the DNA of bears.

If I were advising the DNC, I’d ask them why they even want to take a chance that “swing voters” might tell the pollsters that this isn’t an effective argument. By opening up too many lines of attack on McCain, they risk diluting the effectiveness of any of them and of bringing up something – like this issue – that McCain may actually be able to play into a strength.

They should just stick with a simple, easy, disciplined game plan. To paraphrase Joe Biden’s criticism of Rudy Giuliani the Democrats and the nominee should only have four things come out of their mouths every time they talk: “a John, a McCain, a George, and a Bush.” If they want to throw in “and a hundred years in Iraq,” that would work too.

Trying to get into all these fine points about pork vs earmarks, worthy vs wasteful, are just a waste of message space. Everything – like this WaPo story about McCain and lobbyists – needs to be put into the frame of “a John, a McCain, a George and a Bush.”

Want an example of how this can work?

In Philadelphia’s mayoral primary one candidate used the fact that the outgoing mayor – John Street – had an approval rating of something like negative fifty and more than 66% of residents thought the city was heading in the wrong direction to run his first ads establishing that he was not John Street. It was essentially a negative ad against a term-limited mayor. Many “experts” laughed, shook their heads and wondered why the candidate was running against a guy who wasn’t up for election.

As time went on and this candidate was able to establish himself as the “not John Street” candidate, implicitly saying that the other candidates were John Street candidates, he picked up steam. When folks went into the booth and saw the five candidates, all they had to know was that this candidate was most likely to be as far from the outgoing mayor as possible.

That candidate, Michael Nutter, is now the mayor of Philadelphia.

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