Beware the ire of the Rovian attack beast
Many of the analyses of the Swift Boat brou-ha-ha have pointed out how this is the archtypical Karl Rove offensive. The typical Rove smear uses deniable surrogates to deliver the message. The typical Rove smear attacks the subject’s strong points and converts them into vulnerabilities. These are both true, but we are leaving out one element of the classic Rove attack morphology.
In military terms, Rove does not commit all of his troops to a single battle. Rove fights the political equivalent of a guerrilla war. He wears his opponent down with pin-prick attacks from multiple directions. This is not surprising coming from someone who came of age at the peak of the cold war. A corollary of the MAD doctrine (“Mutual Assured Destruction” not “What, me worry?”) was that if the great powers could not confront each other directly, they would confront each other through surrogates. Both sides were guilty of this horrendous crime against the less powerful countries of the world. The current situations in the Middle East and Central Africa are, from one perspective, the last flickerings of the immoral policy of proxy war. Being immoral himself, it is no wonder Rove sees this as a model to be emulated.
The third element that Karl watchers are leaving out is the strategy of disequilibrium. Rove has many more tricks up his sleeve than just the Swifties. Having weathered their attack with minimum damage, we should not assume we are safe or even that we have time for a deep breath of relief. We beat back the first attacking Hun, there are a thousand more behind him.
The Rove method involves keeping the opposition off balance by delivering multiple unrelated attacks from different directions. Be assured that his next attack will have nothing to do with Viet Nam. As soon as we have our attention laser focused on the Mekong Delta in 1969, someone is going to bring up Kerry’s divorce, or an obscure Senate vote in 1993, or a favor he did a constituent in 1985. When we focus on that, he’ll change direction again. Rove does not care if we destroy the Swifties. They are completely disposable.
While we spend all of our energy responding to Rove’s proxy attacks, his candidate deals with the issues. This is brilliant. Americans have been primed by their media to believe that some vague thing called “character” is the most important issue in an election. Rove’s attacks usually question the opposition’s character. When his strategy works best, the opposition is constantly neglecting issues to defend character. On one hand, Rove determines the agenda that the other side must address. These are never issues that the opposition can win. Meanwhile, Rove’s candidate talks about things that do work well for him and do sound like real issues to the mainstream press and their audience.
The result of this pattern of proxy character attacks on the opposition while his boy addresses the issues is twofold. Most casual news consumers will only see the pattern of repeated claims that “something is wrong with that opposition guy.” Only partisan news junkies who dig into the issues will see the secondary pattern of “all these claims are bogus.” Complimenting this negative slant is the fact that the Opposition, being constantly on the defensive, never launch their own attacks and never calmly address the issues. The bottom line is a perception that Karl’s guy is the one who talks important stuff, however shallowly, while I heard that other guy is some kind of creep.
All this brings me around to my main point. We should not feel good about beating back the Swifties. Rove has a score of these attacks in the wings. Many writers have described the Rove method as “if you throw enough mud, some is bound to stick.” That is a naive oversimplification. The Rove method assumes that as a foundation and adds, “if mud doesn’t stick, try dung, then pudding, then paint, then gravy, then bile, then library glue, then baby poop, mud again, warm tar, herbed bread crumbs, cheese sauce, Silly Puddy ™, that stuff that collects in the trap of your kitchen sink, toe jam, more pudding…” You get the idea.
The attack has just begun. We need to brace ourselves for the next assault.