Friday, October 08, 2004

Rove's October surprise
Early in an election there are hundreds of elements to keep track of, but as we get closer to the end, they fall away 'til there are only a handful left that can affect the result. At this point in the election, I count the debates, turnout, unexpected news developments, and last minute advertising blitzes in key markets as right at the top. To this list, sadly, I suppose we should add post-election legal wrangling. We also need to consider dirty tricks.

On the way home from work last night, my wife and I got talking about Rove's October surprise. A few things are predictable about Rove dirty tricks.

First, is that he doesn't commit all his energy to one attack; he uses multiple attacks to keep his opponent off balance. So far we can credit him with the Swifties and, I suspect, fontgate. I expect at least two more blasts from him. One is already overdue and the other will come less than a week before the election. The traditional time is Friday or Saturday before the election. This gives it time to soak into the public's consciousness but doesn't give the other side time to mount an effective response.

Second, is that he prefers to work through surrogates. The two big advantages of surrogate attacks are deniability and credibility. Deniability is insurance against repercussions. When people decided the Swifties were over the line, Bush was able to shrug and say he wasn't responsible. Credibility is trickier. An attack directly from the campaign will be dismissed as pure politics while an attack from concerned citizens is news. The weakness of a surrogate attack is lack of control. Once the surrogates have been set into action, the campaign has to depend on their competence to get the message across and to get media coverage.

Third, is that he knows no shame. Nothing is too foul for Rove. In fact he count on the innate decency of most people to contribute to his deniability. When a Rove connection is suggested, most people and many reporters react in horror with some variation of "they wouldn't do that" and dismiss the suggestion as mere conspiracy mongering.

Finally, and most characteristic of a Rovian attack, is assaulting an opponent's strength. Most campaigners look for an opponent’s weaknesses, hoping to expand those weaknesses. Rove looks at their strengths, looking for a way to neutralize those strengths leaving them with only their weaknesses. Kerry's two strengths are his Viet Nam service and the general fact that Americans prefer the Democratic position on most domestic and economic issues. We've weathered Rove's attack on Kerry's Viet Nam service, next should be the attack on his domestic positions.

So what will it be? We should be looking for an unknown third party to deliver a low blow to that undermines Kerry's domestic policy strengths. It should be a complicated and layered attack that will keep us distracted for over a week while Bush rebuilds some of his Iraq credibility. It should be timed to peak on the eve of next Friday's domestic debate. I suppose the ideal timing depends on Bush's performance tonight. If he does well, Rove will want the Sunday chat fests to be devoted to Bush's masterful connection with the common folk in the town hall. If he does badly Rove will want a distraction to keep the talking heads from rubbing it in.

However foul this attack is, we need to expect an even cruder and lower assault on the eve of the election. The Rovian other shoe has yet to fall. I can't believe he's out of dirty tricks.

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