November 13, 2004


Bad Message (Ryan Lizza, 11.11.04, New Republic)

Last Saturday night at H2O, a waterfront nightclub in southwest Washington, the Kerry campaign assembled for a final evening of drinking. To everyone's surprise, John Kerry himself flew down from Boston to attend the festivities. Trying to buck up his demoralized troops, the ex-candidate gave a short speech about how much his team had accomplished. "People are going to try to rewrite history and say we didn't have a message in this campaign," Kerry told his staff, according to one Democratic strategist. "And, let me tell you, the message never changed. The message we had in the final days of the campaign was the same as the one we had in the primaries." That was news to some of the boozy Kerry revelers. "Everyone in that room was on edge because everyone wanted to know: What was that message?" says the strategist. [...]

The lack of message was made worse by the failure to articulate a compelling narrative. "People had a story about George Bush," says a senior Kerry adviser. "The story was he was the accidental president who was transformed by 9/11 into a strong and serious leader. That kind of story matters to people." Instead of a story, aides confess, the Kerry campaign had a laundry list of policy proposals, or, in the words of James Carville, a litany rather than a narrative. "The human mind revolves around a story," says Carville. "Churches have litanies. Religions have a narrative.... It's the way we think. But we're selling a set of issue positions. The same thing always comes back: People always like our positions on the issues, and we always lose."

Aides complain that the litany of issues filled the message vacuum. Inside the campaign, the message was known as jhos (pronounced "jay-hose"), which stood for jobs, health care, oil, and security. "jhos," says a senior policy adviser, despondently. "That was our message. It was jhos. That was literally our message. And, by the way, someone made millions of dollars to come up with that." That someone would be the political consulting firm Shrum, Devine, and Donilon, which is now receiving the brunt of criticism from demoralized staffers. The problem, aides say, is the lack of imagination Shrum and his colleagues exhibited. One common complaint is that they were slaves to polling data and used the research in a ridiculously literal way. Says a senior aide, "When you ask people, 'What is the most important issue?' and they say prescription drugs, [the consultants] say, 'Well, if we run on prescription drugs, we'll win.'" One aide repeatedly pressed Kerry to give a speech about welfare reform, since he had voted for Bill Clinton's bill in 1996. The idea was rebuffed because welfare didn't show up in polling as a key issue for voters. "It's never going to be the top issue," the aide complains. "If you call me on the phone, I'm not going to say that. But, if I hear you talk about welfare reform, it tells me something about your underlying character." There seemed to be an insurmountable gulf between the consultants, at their best running issue-based Senate campaigns, and the other staffers, who pressed for Kerry to explain the values he would bring to office rather than just his specific proposals. "Things became increasingly programmatic rather than values-based," says a senior adviser. "We were talking more and more about the specifics of our plan rather than the principles John Kerry would bring to bear in making those decisions."

Republicans obviously have to hope that the "bad messenger" argument prevails so that Democrats stick to the same bad message.

Posted by Orrin Judd at November 13, 2004 8:08 AM

Even in vino, the Democrats still can't get to the veritas.

Posted by: Bart at November 13, 2004 11:10 AM

I predict that, no matter what, Bob Shrum will not be advising the Democratic nominee in 2008.

Posted by: jim hamlen at November 13, 2004 11:53 PM

Kerry, who has been exiled to the garage, was just trying to get laid. He will be looking for that bachelor pad real soon now.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 14, 2004 3:10 PM

During the elections in which the Republicans have run Reagan, Reagan, Bush, Bush, Dole, Bush and Bush, the Dems have run Carter, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Clinton, Gore and Kerry. Their might be something to the messenger theory, but they might want to think about why they have the lousy messengers.

Posted by: David Cohen at November 14, 2004 4:04 PM