Bush Campaign War Room

NYT – Strategy: In Bush’s War Room, the Gloves Are Always Off

Shortly before 2 p.m. on Monday, a handful of President Bush’s campaign aides huddled around two small speakers in a room that, with its shades drawn, was lit by the glow of 15 television monitors. They were listening to the voice of Senator John Kerry. None of the networks were carrying Mr. Kerry’s entire speech to a group of financial donors, mostly women, in Boston that day. But Mr. Bush’s operatives had somehow arranged for their own audio feed, they refused to say how, and were listening intently, ready to pounce on any opening for attack. After sitting impatiently through what seemed to be a typical stump speech, they found one: Mr. Kerry said he was “proud” of votes by him and his running mate, Senator John Edwards, last fall against the president’s requested $87 billion appropriation for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is a vote that Republicans have used to make a case that Mr. Kerry has been failing to support the troops after voting to authorize the war.

Within an hour or so, Mr. Bush’s team, at the campaign’s headquarters in a corporate office building in suburban Virginia, across the Potomac River from the White House, had sent a release via e-mail to hundreds of journalists, supporters and campaign surrogates. The e-mail message included the new quote and one from September, when Mr. Kerry implied it would be “irresponsible” to vote against such spending. The quotation, along with the idea that Mr. Kerry’s position on the money had evolved, found its way onto Fox News and into articles in The Washington Post, USA Today, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Associated Press.

And this was a relatively slow day in Mr. Bush’s war room.

How positively sneaky. Let me get this straight: First, they listen to a campaign speech by their opponent and then they point out inconsistencies to the press? Unprecedented!

Several journalists who cover Mr. Kerry later said they were too embarrassed to say publicly that it took the Bush operatives to spot what was notable in Mr. Kerry’s remarks.

Though far more technologically advanced, Mr. Bush’s war room was built in the mold of Bill Clinton’s pioneering effort in 1992, which combined campaign research and communications staff members to collect and disburse information to the news media, which are crucial in shaping perceptions and candidates, as quickly as possible. That operation was rooted in defense, born of the Democrats’ vows to never again allow Republican attacks to go unanswered the way they believed they did during the 1988 race between Michael S. Dukakis and George Bush. Mr. Bush’s operation, however, is rooted more in offense, devised to seek out and exploit every possible opportunity to paint Mr. Kerry as a political equivocator who switches positions on important issues when it suits his political interest.

As such, the war room is the nerve center of what Democrats, and some presidential scholars, have called the most relentlessly negative re-election campaign in memory – and what Republicans say is a necessarily energetic drive to hold Mr. Kerry to a record they say is rife with contradictions. On a daily basis, the assembled Republicans hope to pick new fights based on Mr. Kerry’s most recent statements, and those from his past.

Is it really the case that the Clinton version only worked to spin the Bush 41 and Dole talking points, never going on the offensive? I don’t seem to recall it that way. Further, isn’t it reasonable to point out when the opponent is being hypocritical and indecisive?

Of course, Mr. Kerry’s campaign has a war room, as well. And it has been credited with not only defending Mr. Kerry from Republican charges quickly but also taking the offensive, as it did recently against Mr. Bush over high gasoline prices. Speaking of his Bush campaign opponents, Chad Clanton, a spokesman in Mr. Kerry’s war room said Tuesday, “They’re doing an incredible job of trying to mop up after a failed administration that’s made America less safe and less secure.” Reporters who cover the campaigns say Mr. Kerry’s war room has grown competitive with that of Mr. Bush, but only in recent weeks. Not distracted by primary opponents, Mr. Bush’s war room was well in place when Mr. Kerry’s campaign was still moving to more of a general election footing.

How completely unfair! Of course, Bush had to endure the attacks of all fifty or so Democrats during the primary season, when he had no specific Democrat to fight back against or primary fight of his own to garner media attention. And, frankly, Kerry had this thing all but wrapped up after the New Hampshire primary–back in February.

Mr. Kerry’s pronouncement that he was proud of the vote against the $87 billion appropriation gave the war room something to attack. He was actually referring to Mr. Edwards when he said: “I’m proud to say that John joined me in voting against that $87 billion when we knew the policy had to be changed.” After Republicans sent an e-mail message about the comment to their vast list of reporters, Mr. Schmidt followed up with telephone calls to select reporters traveling with Mr. Kerry to make sure they noticed it. “The news of the day,” Mr. Schmidt proclaimed in one phone call to a reporter, “is an evolution on the $87 billion. Now John Kerry said he was proud.” (Mr. Kerry’s campaign argued that Mr. Kerry has always stood by his vote and that the Bush campaign was making something out of nothing particularly new. )

On Tuesday, Mr. Bush’s aides, while careful not to credit themselves for persuading reporters to jump on the quote, were clearly pleased that it popped up in many articles. Even so, they were not entirely satisfied. Mr. Schmidt said he would ask some of the campaign’s surrogates to bring it up again during television appearances. But in the end, surrogates were not necessary. Mr. Bush, apprised of the quote by campaign aides, brought it up in a speech in Michigan on Tuesday, saying, “Members of Congress should not vote to send troops into battle and then vote against funding them. And then brag about it.” That sound bite was featured prominently near the beginning of “World News Tonight” on ABC on Tuesday. The program’s average, nightly audience far outreaches any single newspaper: more than eight million people.

It’s a shame that the Democrats don’t have any way to draw attention to things President Bush says. . . .

FILED UNDER: 2004 Election, Afghanistan War, Media, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.