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Storytelling In The News: #96

Republican McCain backs Democrat Kerry on defense

March 22, 2004

It's an old adage that 'dog bites man' is not news - news is when 'man bites dog'. On Friday March 19, 2004, we had the political equivalent of a 'man bites dog' story appear. Tales of Democrats calling Republicans liars and of Republicans calling Democrats weak on defense are a dime a dozen, or "dog bites man". But on Friday, there was something different. Republican Senator John McCain publicly defended the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Senator John Kerry, on national security matters.

What McCain said

Speaking on NBC's "Today" show, Republican Sen. John McCain yesterday said "I do not believe that he is, quote, 'weak on defense,' " thereby distancing himself from the ongoing Bush-Cheney campaign's attacks on the Democratic presidential challenger and frustrating conservatives hopes for a unified Republican front against the Massachusetts senator.

Asked on the CBS "Early Show" whether he agreed with Vice President Cheney's assertion that Kerry is a threat to national security, McCain said: "I don't think that. I think that John Kerry is a good and decent man. . . . I think he has different points of view on different issues, and he will have to explain his voting record. But this kind of rhetoric, I think, is not helpful in educating and helping the American people make a choice."

The credibility of the storyteller is a crucial dimension of the story's effectiveness.McCain is congressional authority on military affairs, and a hero to many veterans familiar with his years of torture in a North Vietnamese prisoner-of-war camp. Whereas the stories of Democrats backing Kerry and of Republicans attacking him will raise obvious questions of credibility, McCain has no partisan axe to grind, and his story about Kerry will be accorded a different weight.

The Republican campaign

McCain's remarks came during a week in which the Bush-Cheney campaign sharpened its attacks on Kerry's record on military and diplomatic matters.

In a speech Wednesday in California, Cheney portrayed Kerry as a weak-willed lawmaker whose policies would have left Saddam Hussein in Baghdad as well as Kuwait. He said Kerry "has given us ample doubts about his judgment and the attitude he brings to bear on vital issues of national security."

On Friday, the Bush-Cheney campaign released a new TV ad attacking Kerry's voting record on funding the war in Iraq.

The premise of the Republican campaign

The prospects of the Republicans turning a decorated war hero and a senator with several decades of distinguished service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee into someone who should be perceived as weak on defense is an interesting gambit. It appears to rest on the premise that if you repeat a story long enough and often enough, people may believe it, regardless of the evidence.

The attacks on Kerry also reflect Bush's decision to run for re-election as a "war president", when his own personal credentials on matters of military service are distinctly less impressive than the war-hero Kerry. The Republican television commercials, which repeat stories about Kerry's voting record in the Senate, conclude unambiguously that Kerry is "wrong on defense" or "weak on defense".

The prospects of the Republican tactic

In the past, the Bush presidency has experienced astonishing success with the tactic of endlessly repeating a story with less than impeccable evidentiary credentials, having apparently persuaded much of the US electorate - to the amazement of much of the rest of the world - that former Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, was behind the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

It will be interesting to see whether they have similar success in the case of Kerry, where the facts are somewhat more accessible and a substantial proportion of the electorate already holds the contrary view.

The success of the tactic is in part dependent on a united chorus of voices all saying the same thing, or at least not openly expressing dissent, thus generating a groundswell of apparently unanimous support for the underlying story, regardless of the actual evidence.

Nevertheless the mechanism is delicate. "It only takes one person speaking out of school to reveal a lie or distortion," said Joe Lockhart, a former spokesman for president Bill Clinton. "So I think this could have a powerful impact on the Bush attack."

Thus the remarks of a prominent Republican Senator, which did no more than state a widely held view in the Senate, infuriated Republicans. Conservative talk show hosts denounced McCain's remarks. The Bush-Cheney campaign itself tried to play the matter low-key, noting that the senator has campaigned for Bush this year in New Hampshire.

Bottom line

So we have once again competing stories. Can the positive story of a single Republican Senator, without funding and told only once, withstand the onslaught of the negative story backed by entire Republican political machine, funded with tens of millions of dollars and repeated endlessly on television?

McCain's story has inherent credibility because of its non-partisan origin. But whether McCain's positive story will nullify the negative Republican campaign, as Democrats hope, will depend in part on who gets to hear McCain's story. While the well-funded Bush-Cheney campaign is endlessly repeating its negative story in television commercials, the cash-strapped Kerry campaign does not appear to be in a financial position to counter with its own corrective television messages. Thus who gets to hear McCain's remarks and the positive story will in part be determined by the media. The Washington Post gave the story prominence on its front page on Saturday. It remains to be seen how the rest of the country's newspapers and television reporters respond.

The success of the Republicans' tactic will also depend on the intelligence of the electorate. Just as ten days ago the Spanish electorate was quickly able to see through the government's well-coordinated efforts to blame - without evidence - the terrorist attacks of March 11 on Basque terrorists and voted it out of office, so the risk for the Bush-Cheney campaign is that the US electorate will see the negative television stories about Kerry for what they are.

Thus it's not enough simply to repeat the negative stories. For stories to be effective, in the end, people have to believe that they are true.

Postscript March 26, 2004

The initial aftermath was that the Kerry campaign enjoyed record fund-raising in recent weeks and released its second broadcast ad on March 22. Called "Fought for America," the ad is airing in 17 states starting today: Ariz., Ark., Fla., Iowa, Maine, Mich., Minn., Mo., Nev., N.H., N.M., Ohio, Ore., Pa., Wash., W. Va. and Wis. The campaign is spending more than $2 million to air the ad.

Postscript August 2004

The Bush campaign was eventually successfuly in getting people to believe the story that Kerry was weak on defense by getting Kerry's former colleagues in Vietnam to tell negative stories.

The content of Kerry's ad

Announcer: "For 35 years, John Kerry has fought for his country."
Kerry: "We need to get some things done in this country: affordable health care, rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy, really investing in our kids. That's why I'm running for president."
Announcer: "John Kerry: the military experience to defend America. A new plan to create jobs and put our economy back on track."
Kerry: "I'm John Kerry and I approved this message because it's time to put opportunity in the hands of all Americans."
Announcer: "John Kerry. A new direction for America."

The signficance of Kerry's ad

According to USA Today, the ad has three goals. First: to introduce Kerry to voters in the 17 most competitive states. Second: to show he cares about the "things that matter to people," Kerry campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill says. Third: to counter President Bush's ad that said Kerry is "wrong on defense."

USA Today suggests that phrases such as "fought for his country" shore up his defense credentials. Pictures of Kerry in uniform also indirectly contrast his Vietnam War-era military record with Bush's. Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard but did not go to Vietnam.

The ad remains essentially positive in tone, which is essential for either candidate if they want to win the votes of independent voters. Negative ads may "work" in the limited sense of discouraging people to vote for opponent, but they typically don't add votes for Kerry, and in fact may discourage independent voters from voting for either candidate.

Read USA Today

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