. . . Tuesday March 1, 2005

The Counterpunch

Dining with the Duke: A three part reflection on a recent luncheon I attended with Michael Dukakis.

Part Two: The Counterpunch

What’s the best way for a campaign and a candidate to respond when the other side throws garbage on you and the media helps them in their cause? Well, to find just the right answer to that question, you’d probably want to talk to a guy who has been hit and hit hard by mud.

I’d say Michael Dukakis qualifies. During his presidential campaign, he saw his poll numbers decline 8 points in ten days after the release of a baseless story suggesting that he had experienced a psychological breakdown. Dukakis was criticized heavily at the time for not hitting back fast enough and/or hard enough. He argues that his campaign responded immediately.

Cut to a few elections later when the swift boat story (debunked in elections past) emerges to take center stage in the media for weeks on end. History may suggest that the swift boat ads were some of the most effective hit jobs in electoral history. The topic was Kerry’s military career (how impressive or unimpressive it was) and not Iraq or his opponent’s own military record.

So did Kerry hit back hard and early and often enough?

I’m not sure. Ask Michael Dukakis about this issue and he will tell you that even today, he still hasn’t come up with the right formula for taking on attack ads. And he’s had a long time to think about it.

Let’s consider an even more recent example. Faced with losing the support of retirees when it comes to W’s Social Security plan, one of the GOP media-based sniper operations went on the attack. They released an ad which suggested that the AARP was strongly in favor of gay marriage and strongly opposed to U.S. military personnel. The ad was absurd and transparent in its goals.

So how do you respond?

Dukakis suggested that the right way to respond to the attack on the AARP would be to pin the messaging on the man in the Oval Office; give folks a better idea of the way these guys operate.

Maybe that’s the right response. But it’s worth noting that during a recent appearance on Hardball, the diabolical Charlie Jarvis, CEO of USANext (the org behind the anti-AARP ads and also a benefits competitor to the AARP), indicated that he released the ad in part to get left-leaning blogs and sites to focus on it and attack it.

A lot of people who had never heard of USANext now have. And for a brief time, the AARP’s defense became a bigger story than W’s slippery Social Security plan. So in this case, who does attacking the attack ad hurt and who does it help?

None of these situations are quite the same. But they all raise the same question. What is the best way to deal with mud being slung in your direction?

So far, I haven’t heard anyone come up with a really good answer. Until there is one, we’re all in for a lot more mud.

Concentration is important!