Marketing campaign

September 05, 2004|By Paul Moore

LAST WEEK'S Republican National Convention had the air of supreme confidence. President Bush's poll numbers are up, especially on the issues of national security and combating terrorism, and one speaker after another (with the exception of Sen. John McCain, who simply derided filmmaker Michael Moore) took delight in mocking Democratic nominee John Kerry.

From former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's denunciations of Mr. Kerry to Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele's jokes about the Massachusetts senator's leadership skills to Vice President Dick Cheney's criticisms of Mr. Kerry's voting record - which inspired "flip-flop, flip-flop" chants from the crowd - the message was: "Democrats are wimps."

With the election less than two months away, political dialogue about substantive issues has all but disappeared. Whether it began with the controversy over the movie Fahrenheit 9/11, the televised ads sponsored by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth or the incendiary nature of talk radio and TV talking heads, something has gone very wrong.

Opinions of The Sun's coverage of Mr. Steele's speech ran the gamut. "Nice propaganda piece," said Michael Caughlin. "You should go to work for Fox News, you'd fit right in." Holden Rogers saw it differently. "The chill is discernible in your description of Lt. Gov. Michael Steele, his convention speech and the description that it was `warmly received,' when it fact he gave a rousing speech which brought the crowd to its feet. But after all, it was The Sunpapers I was reading, was it not?"

As it was for the Democrats at their convention in July, this gathering was a giant commercial. The lack of real drama or legitimate political activity is one reason that the major television networks now limit live coverage to three prime-time hours. NBC anchor Tom Brokaw told The Washington Post that he blamed "the paid consultants and image makers who have drained the convention of all vitality. It seems disconnected from people's lives, it's so managed, manipulated and marketed to death."

But marketing and manipulation are very effective devices. The efforts to present President Bush as an unflinching leader, a compassionate and loving husband and a believer in economic opportunity for all was part of the nightly theme.

There was no discussion of "winning the cultural wars" on the convention floor, where the talk was of inclusiveness and unity. The party's platform, which reflects the socially conservative values of most of the delegates, seemed to slip by almost unnoticed.

The constant element, which reached its peak Wednesday night with Democratic Sen. Zell Miller's keynote address, was the barrage of criticism toward Mr. Kerry. The Georgia senator used the words "wrong," "weak" and "wobbly" to describe the Democratic nominee and said his own party "has a warped way of thinking" that is dividing the nation. Mr. Cheney ridiculed Mr. Kerry for "talking about leading a more sensitive war on terror, as though al-Qaida will be impressed with our softer side."

The strategy was to create doubts about Mr. Kerry's character and toughness and to avoid the complexities of national security policy and problems implementing such policies. Mr. Kerry's vagueness and emphasis on his military service has helped make this plan easier to disseminate. And his expressed desire for a more a nuanced and diplomatic foreign policy has become an object of ridicule.

By the time Mr. Bush arrived in the convention hall Thursday night, he was welcomed like a conquering hero returning home. After the strong criticisms of Mr. Kerry from many of the previous speakers, the president could moderate his own attacks on his opponent and emphasize his theme of "building a safer world."

Still, things may have reached a new low Wednesday night with Mr. Miller's speech. The conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan, who is not a fan of John Kerry, wrote on his Web site: "Miller's assertion was that any dissent from aspects of the war on terror was the equivalent of treason. ... By claiming that the Democrats were the enemies of the troops, traitors, quislings and wimps, Miller did exactly what he had the audacity to claim the Democrats were doing: making national security a partisan matter. I'm not easy to offend, but this speech was gob-smackingly vile."

We can only hope that the campaign process gets better - and fast.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

The public editor Readers who have concerns or comments may call The Sun's public editor. He can be reached at 410-332-6364 or toll-free at 1-800-829-8000, ext. 6364, or by fax at 410-783-2502, or by e-mail at publiceditor@baltsun.com.

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