Saturday, October 09, 2004

A Guest Message From NoTrust: When JDs Debate MBAs

I'd like to thank NoTrust for his serious response to my column "Listen To The Candidates Debate". He hones in on what it means to have a Prsidential debate between lawyers and MBAs.

NoTrust says:

"Bruce, I also thought Kerry missed opportunities, many of which you mentioned. I think central to the misses are the candidate’s career backgrounds and the consequential way they approach the debates. As trial lawyers Kerry and Edwards see this as a trial. As corporate executives, Bush and Cheney approach this as a sales and marketing exercise. While there are many similarities in the acts of persuading a jury and the public, the biggest differences between the two are the ability (or inability) to sell to people individually and see their reactions during the sales process, and the time limits in which to sell.

"As lawyers, Kerry and Edwards can use a tangible response from a small group of people and tailor their message. Perhaps this is effective for a small impressionable group, but it might also giving the appearance of pandering or flip flopping to the millions they’re not talking directly to. On the other hand, corporate executives sell impersonally. They’re used to seeing the results of their pitches in trend analysis, not on the faces of a jury. SO they’re used to concise consistent messages. As for time limits, trial lawyers are largely self-governed as to the duration of a point. Alternately, effective corporate executives use large print and big pictures when speaking to each other; and 30 and 60 second commercials when speaking to the public. Considering the format of the debates, it’s either a credit to Kerry/Edwards, or an indictment of Bush/Cheney that the Democrats did as well as they did. That said, Kerry’s good showing probably wasn’t enough, which is why the missed opportunities are so important, and why simply responding with a better idea is not always the right answer.

"Bush is a quick study and trains in a corporate white house that is very carefully marketing style over substance - a good tact for a debate format (and audience) that is geared for shallow points and sound bites. If a number or reference sounds good and is said with enough authority, significant numbers of people will buy it, regardless of viability or truth. (Incidentally, I find it ironic the most corporate styled white house and campaign in memory is the least concerned with the country’s bottom line.)

"Ultimately, these debates and this election are not about issues or even ideas. They're about credibility. The scope and breadth of such complex multi-faceted topics as foreign affairs, the economy, and even the explanation of our legislative process (It is naive for anyone to put stock in voting records on specific bills when we all know that what a bill is titled has little to do with what it actually does. Yet the strategy works.) is such that the vast majority of the American people don't have the time, inclination or training to fully understand the scope of what either candidate is proposing, assess the examples they offer, or ascertain how effective the candidates can be in executing them. As a result, our voters, particularly our *still* undecided voters, who care very much about these things but are not living in a world that makes study of these issues plausible, can only really decide upon personality. The TV commercials make both candidates sound good. Unchallenged, the facts and figures each quote sound impressive. As with Tide and Wisk, the shirts both seem clean on TV. But whom to trust?

"The Republicans, used to product sales and marketing, recognize these nuances and are expert in exploiting them. Reagan and both Bushs offer simple, folksy axioms and mantras that people can relate to. They rarely talk deeply about the issues, rather they focus on tenable themes and personality flaws in their opponents. The reason these are effective tactics is it's what people have experience in and can understand. They may not have experience in the economy, but they know how to find fault with a colleague. What you can understand you can trust. Once you begin to trust, you begin to give trust. That is what the Republicans are terrific at. "We're working hard," Bush says. "Everyday we wake up and we work hard." Personally I find this pitch almost laughable. And I'm sure many others also feel the same way. But the logic is easy and relatable. It's a core American value, and the statement does two things: it gives the undecided something tangible to understand and then trust and it also, ironically, turns Bush into a blue collar man of the people, juxtaposed against the 'metro-sexual' Kerry. (Do you think it was a coincidence there was a Fox story falsely quoting Kerry calling himself that?)

"It's in this light that I think Kerry missed key points in the debate. Trust is created from credibility. And it is credibility Kerry needs to attack. This is an administration that plays fast and loose with the truth. I can't remember a more consistent stream of little stories in the press (why they're little is another blog) about highly credible bi-partisan sources rejecting highly suspect policies: Iraq, the economy, the sciences and the environment.

"It is clear to me Kerry is *trying* to attack credibility. Yet, he has had trouble. He still gets caught in trial lawyer mode. Worrying only about the people in the local jury. Sometimes forgetting he’s packaging a product for the people on the other side of the infomercial. He’s on the defensive - reacting to questions two or three back - wasting time that can be used to go on the offensive and embarrass the feeble statistics and figures Bush just quoted while they're on people’s mind.

"Take the environment question. Staunch Republicans admit this administration's record is awful. Cheney cited Reagan in saying the environment (and deficit for that matter) is inconsequential in getting votes. It is a clearly neglected area of the Republican platform. There are mountains of scientific data and studies showing the horrible environment decisions this administration has made. Yet, when the question was asked Bush, on the surface, made very compelling points about his environmental record. Gosh, he waxed poetic about being a steward of the land, or some such nonsense. Kerry's response was to take the first 45 seconds of the rebuttal to talk about another question. Bush won the point.

"While the environment may not be a swing issue for voters it was a perfect opportunity to attack credibility. Credibility attacks are cumulative. By throwing into doubt the half truths and sound bites Bush is parroting about the environment everything else is suspect. This was a no-brainer, Kerry should have had a mountain of data to attack Bush's environment record, should have known the few weak anecdotes Bush could cite, and used the opportunity to renounce Bush’s credibility, back dropped against the environment, a topic people can understand. These kinds of specific invalidations; the ability to make someone appear disingenuous, is what the American people can relate to. The nuances of the Kyoto treaty, while probably much more important and germane to the issue, are too complex and not effective in this forum.

"I get the sense this administration knows how to play the game better, and they do it without conscience. It’s a results oriented, utilitarian culture. They don't mind the Halliburton style practices within the campaign or the administration or within this country or Iraq for that matter, because it's a cultural fit. Granted, the Democrats are no altar boys either, but it seems they don't play the game as well, which is strangely admirable. Perhaps it’s because the left faction of the party is fundamentally less accommodating to these practices than the right faction of the Republicans. Although, lately the Democrats seem to have compartmentalized the idealistic party members with an influx of new blood into the campaign, but one wonders if it was too late.

"The original Democratic theme of making the campaign about ideas and taking the high road was idealistic. Welcome, admirable, but a losing strategy in courting swing voters, particularly when competing with a sitting President. Ties go to the incumbent. Just like being the newbie in the boardroom or the salesman trying to unseat an already installed product, the burden of proof is on the Democrats. Kerry has got to shake Bush's credibility in clear, simple, tenable ways. Otherwise, as the incumbent, people are likely to take what Bush says, and his ideas, verbatim because they don’t know whether they can trust Kerry’s, even if they understand them."

Thanks NoTrust. As a Northern Democrat, I always say that the Bushies don't really care what they do to the Constitution, so long as they win. A Southern Republican might say that there is more to the United States than the Constitution, and even if there wasn't the Constitution is stronger than I think it is. Those people better be right.