Take the bait or take the pledge

Take the bait or take the pledge September 26, 2003

"Just watch me." That was how President Bush responded when asked how he planned to spend $170 million in an uncontested primary campaign.

The Bush campaign will likely spend a good chunk of that money attacking his Democratic challengers. He has enough money to attack them all, but that won't be necessary, and it's not how this nasty little game is played.

The key to this low road is to go after the frontrunner(s) — especially whoever appears like they would be a formidable opponent in the general election. Gov. Gray Davis — a Democrat — practically wrote the playbook on this. Davis' most formidable opponent was former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan. He ran ads attacking Riordan during the Republican primary, helping marginal (and eminently beatable) candidate Bill Simon to win that contest, and thus helping himself to win the general election.

Davis' hardball (sleazeball) strategy was particularly effective because the California GOP is a notorious bunch of crabs in a bucket. Like Tolkien's trolls in The Hobbit they were all-too-easy to pit against one another. All Gandalf-the-Gray Davis had to do was stick to the shadows and occasionally prod along the infighting, waiting for sunrise.

The Bush campaign has to be hoping that the 10 contenders in the Democratic primary are as big a bunch of suckers as Bill Simon and the California Republican Party. Bush — or his surrogates — will likely spend some of that $170 million the way Davis did, with TV and radio ads attacking (for now) Howard Dean, Wesley Clark and John Kerry.

The most effective surrogates for the Bush campaign, however, are not conservative advocacy groups, like the despicable Club for Growth. The surrogates Team Bush really covets are those Democratic challengers who are trailing in the polls.

For every dollar spent on attack ads, the Bush campaign will likely spend a dollar on "opposition research," digging up — or inventing — the dirt on his least preferred Democratic opponents. The best way to make public whatever his people find/concoct is to leak this to a cooperative Democratic campaign that is willing to work with Bush to tear down the hopefuls ahead of them in the polls.

A key factor in the 2004 election will be how such candidates — and their supporters — react when they are given the opportunity to shift the focus of their criticism away from Bush and onto their fellow Democrats. If, like Bill Simon or Tolkien's trolls, they take the bait, they will end up sharing a similar fate — a mossy relic forever on the political sidelines.

Keep in mind that a sitting president cannot single you out for attack without dragging you up to his level. Whenever the Bush campaign attacks any challenger, it is an opportunity for every challenger to "act presidential" by responding to that attack forcefully.

All of which is why I like the idea of this pledge being promoted at Interesting Times.

"Having George W. Bush as President has been and will continue to be a disaster," the pledge begins, and therefore:

We will not let our partisanship towards any particular candidate for President cause us to lose sight of this basic truth. As such, we pledge ourselves not to become enablers of any campaign designed to divide us in our struggle to remove Bush from power.

A good idea and an important point.

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