Friday, February 22, 2008

Campaign Strategy Watch - "Disappointed?" The Dukakis Strategy ...

Ned Barnett (c) 2008

Full Disclosure: I start from the assumption that John McCain is truly innocent of the unsourced and unsubstantiated charges levied against him by the New York Times.

Here's the situation: if McCain's guilty (which I don't believe for a second) his "Dukakis" denial strategy seems perfectly appropriate.

But if he's truly innocent, his full-frontal Dukakis-like "I'm disappointed in the Times" response was damningly tepid.

As an American, as a husband and as a man, McCain should have been outraged - after all, this story could not only disrupt his campaign, it has the potential to destroy his marriage as well. But instead honest outrage, he adopted the "Dukakis Strategy," making it clear that he is politely "disappointed."

Strategically, McCain clearly didn't want to attack the essentially liberal "pundit-ocracy," and in that goal, he succeeded admirably. While denying the Times' story, he said nothing that would offend the self-appointed talking head experts at CNN, MSNBC or the Washington Post. But in taking this "safe" Dukakis Strategy approach, McCain has cut himself off from main street Americans who expect passion and commitment from their leaders.

Though it's too late now, there was a better way - see below. But first, the "Dukakis Strategy" explained:

The "Dukakis Strategy" reflects Michael Dukakis' campaign-killing reply to Bernie Shaw's question in the second 1988 Presidential Debate: "Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?"

This softball question was intended - CNN admits on their website - "to give Dukakis an opportunity to show - and the voters an opportunity to see - the emotional side of a candidate dubbed by many as the 'Ice Man.'"

However, the Duke's famously bland and passionless response: "No, I don't, Bernard. And I think you know that I've opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don't see any evidence that it's a deterrent, and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime. We've done so in my own state," helped to torpedo the Duke's campaign.

Americans want flesh-and-blood Presidents, not automatons, and instead of showing his inner feelings, Dukakis proved his passionless personality.

Which brings us back to McCain's bloodless "I'm disappointed" response. No "normal" man, faced with bogus charges that threaten his career - and his marriage - would respond so tepidly. For a man who tries to project the image of a sleeves-rolled-up fighter ready to "take it to al Qaeda from Day-One," this bland response will hurt. Perhaps not fatally, but his adoption of the Dukakis Strategy certainly damages his image.

What should he have done?

McCain should have demanded satisfaction in a court of law, using his own life-story as precedent. McCain is a Naval Academy graduate, and he knows that - when a Naval Officer is accused of something that damages his reputation - he has the right to demand a court martial to clear his good name.

McCain knows, of course, that no court would find against the New York Times - McCain's the ultimate "public figure" and it's hard to "legally" libel a public figure - but in a court of law, McCain could have gotten the truth out, forcing the Times to reveal their sources or admit that they were wrong.

Instead of "disappointed," McCain should have said something like this:

"This libelous story is an outrage - completely false from beginning to end, and profoundly hurtful to my wife and my reputation. I not only believe this, I intend to prove it. My attorneys will be filing a lawsuit later today, charging the Times with malicious libel. This is the only way that I can officially and publicly clear my good name.

"I fully realize that as a "public figure," I can't win a financial settlement - but that's not my intention anyway. Therefore, to prove my innocence and to regain my reputation for honesty and integrity, I will be suing the Times ... for one dollar. In the US Navy, when an officer's reputation is tarnished by a false charge, he has the right to demand a court martial to clear his name - and I am doing exactly that.

"The Times is wrong, and in a court of law, I will prove exactly that.

This bold strategy would have put the Times on the defensive - they have no valid sources, and can't prove their bogus story. Yet to defend themselves, they'd have to try to prove the story is correct ... or admit that they were wrong.

Beyond that, this strategy would have shows McCain to be a bold leader who will defend what is right - and a man who will go to any lengths to protect his family, as well as his country.

I know this is Monday Morning Quarterbacking at its best - it is far too late for McCain to change his response - but maybe he'll consider this and do better the next time. Because, having provided such a lame response, he's only emboldened others who will come up with even more rancorous charges.

Remember, you heard it here first.