Wednesday, September 01, 2004

Asymmetric Campaigning and Kerry's Symbolic Targets

Salon spends most of their Kerry panic article beating the dead horse of the Swift Boat Vets credibility "problem". Sure, some of these guys are flaky and less than credible. What Salon and the other Dems who are pulling their hair out over this don't get is the nature of asymmetrical campaigning.

Like asymmetrical warfare, asymmetrical campaigning involves a small, mobile force with nothing to lose (SBVT) attacking a large, expensive institution with a lot to lose (the Kerry campaign). The attackers can shoot and miss over and over. The defenders must defeat every attack. The attackers do not have any goal beyond the attack itself. The defenders have a larger goal beyond merely deflecting each attack.

The Swift Boat Vets don't have to be credible as people. Indeed, like guerilla warriors, the more anonymous they are the better because it keeps the focus on the attack itself. Remember, the SBVT aren't running for president. If Kerry tries to fight a battle of credibility attrition with the Swifties, trying to damage their credibility while they damage his, then Kerry will go down.

The Swifties can throw out 10 charges. The Kerry campaign must respond to all of them. If only one charge sticks (like Christmas in Cambodia) then the SBVT have succeeded.

Like in asymetrical warfare the attacks do not have to inflict substantial damage - often a symbolic target is more valuable. I mean, who cares about Kerry's medals or if he was in Cambodia or not? I don't. But Kerry made his Vietnam service a symbol for his integrity and courage. Any attack on the symbol inflicts damage on the characteristics it symbolizes.

What can he do? How do you defeat this asymmetrical campaigning? Sure, he could do a press conference and answer each charge one by one in great detail. Snooze. That risks elevating the charges further. He could release his military records but that's probably a Pandora's box of future targets.

The way to defeat asymmetrical attacks on symbolic targets is to de-symbolize the target. His first mistake was to emphasize his Vietnam service so much. Now he has to reduce it's importance, to downplay it, to de-mythologize it. Kerry should come out and say something like this.

"Sure I worked the military bureaucracy to get as many medals as I could. I filled out paperwork and pushed it through the system. You'd do the same thing. Were are those medals due to super-human bravery? No. But so what? You think Bush earned all his grades at Harvard too? Grow up. Sure I told tall tales about my 'secret missions' into Cambodia. Lots of vets tell tall tales. So what? That's the best you can do? If exaggerating my military service from 35 years ago is my big character flaw then I can live with that. I'm not a saint. If you can honestly say that you have never exaggerated your experience, to your co-workers or neighbors, at a party, to make a point to your kids, then hey, good for you. Like anyone, any vet, stories from my youth became more colorful over time. But my convictions, my ideals, my vision of American and my hopes for my fellow citizens have not changed and will not change as we struggle to realize that vision together. Good night."

Then respond to the Swift Boat Vets with a parody of their commercial mocking their obsession with events from the 60s. Hire some comedy writers and make an ad in the same style, with the same earnestness about an average Joe who exaggerated about some trivial part of his past. Make us laugh and the next time the Swift Boat ads come on we'll laugh at them. Undermine their attack by essentially admitting their point but trivializing it, making them look petty and obsessive.

He could follow the same tactic regarding his anti-war protests. After the convention, after the Swift boat ads fade away, the 'Kerry as anti-war protest weeny' ads start. How will he respond? Probably the same way he responded to the Swifties - by whining and bitching and throwing a tantrum about how the press isn't doing it's job by debunking these unprincipled, unfounded, immoral attacks. Yawn. He should say something like this.

"Look. I'd been to Nam. I'd seen young men get blown up for no real reason. When I cam back I was anger. I mean super freaking crazy with anger. I said and did some things that I shouldn't have. It was a difficult time. Like I said, I was angry and that was my way of working through it. What was I supposed to do, spend the 70s drinking and snorting coke?"

This strategy requires Kerry to admit that his 4 months in Vietnam was not the height of bravery and that his anti-war protest was more psycho-drama than political courage. But he can't. His Vietnam service and protests are pillars of his personality. He cannot disavow them or downplay them or laugh off attacks on them. Thus he is the perfect target for asymmetrical campaign attacks. He has too many symbolic targets to defend. And his attackers have nothing to lose.

I hope the Dems learn a lesson from this. But I doubt it.

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