There’s an article by Ryan Lizza in the current New Republic that I strongly recommend you read. The upshot of the piece is that there’s some wisdom — and certainly a strategy behind John Kerry’s relative absence from the airwaves over the last six to eight weeks.
The conventional rule of campaigning is that you don’t let your opponent define you before you get a chance to define yourself.
Yet, as Ryan describes it, the Kerry plan is to do something very near the opposite. The plan is to take these punches from the Bush campaign and let Bush burn through a lot of his money. Hopefully, in the view of the Kerry campaign, Kerry comes through that without having suffered too much damage. Then Kerry fights back with hard-hitting ads through the late spring and summer with Bush having squandered his huge money advantage.
Now, what to make of this?
This is one of those strategies that is improbably brilliant unless it turns out to be completely stupid. And the difficulty, as with so many high stakes decisions in life, is that it’s hard to know in advance which it will be.
There is, however, as Ryan points out, at least some reason to think the Kerry campaign may be on to something. If I recall correctly, the Bush campaign spent something on the order of $50 million in March alone — most of it on ads — and certainly tens of millions more through April. So Bush has burned through a ton of money while Kerry has been raising it at a blinding clip. Ryan notes the following …
On March 1, Kerry had $2.4 million in the bank and Bush had $110 million. By the end of April, a rough educated guess, based on how both candidates are raising and spending money, would put Kerry’s cash on hand at about $60 million and Bush’s at about $75 million.
Now, there’s been a lot of attention to Bush’s bounce in the polls. But even so Republican-friendly a poll as the Fox News poll, which is the most recent national poll out, has Bush 43%, Kerry 42%. That’s within the margin of error; and by most calculations an incumbent who barely pulls more than 40% is in serious trouble.
So there’s certainly a way of looking at what’s happened over the last month or so and say that Bush has essentially squandered his entire financial advantage over Kerry. And the race is still neck and neck.
Famous last words? Could be.
I don’t put any of this forward to endorse this strategy or criticize it. I’m uncertain. It just seems to me that it is at least arguable that Kerry’s getting bruised a bit was a price worth paying to even the campaign funds playing field. Again, at least arguable.
One other point.
I’ve watched presidential campaigns with some degree or another of attention back to 1980. But the 2000 election was the first I observed with any sort of inside access. Looking back on that race — and I say this as a real admirer of Gore — the problem was not the strategy so much as the multiplicity and mutability of strategies the Gore campaign had. Indeed, the real problem, one might say, was the campaign’s susceptibility to mau-mauing and aggressively proffered free-advice from pundits and other Democrats.
Putting that more simply, the Gore campaign listened too closely to its critics and paid a price for it.
The Kerry campaign doesn’t seem to have that problem. And my gut tells me that’s a good thing.
Of course, if the strategy is bad, commitment to it simply ensures a bad result. And that, I suppose, would make Kerry rather like Bush, who intends to continue demonstrating leadership by adhering to an already demonstrably failed strategy until he runs the whole nation right off the cliff.
Steady leadership, as the president’s campaign posters say, in times of change.