Kerry must 'reframe' Bush -- and fast
JOHN KERRY is in trouble because the Bush campaign has seized control of what psychologists call the "frame" of this year's presidential contest. Bush, Karl Rove, Dick Cheney, and company have framed the election starkly: Bush will keep us safe in a time of terror. He will put money in people's pockets by cutting our taxes, and somehow that will also be good for the economy.
Bush and Cheney have also framed Kerry. He is inconstant, an effete elitist who lives in a lah-de-dah neighborhood, speaks a foreign language, keeps changing his mind on everything from Vietnam to Iraq. This signals that Kerry is culturally different from ordinary folks (like Bush) and that if he wavers on everything else, you can't trust him to be resolute on terrorists.
If this imagery hardens, Kerry is toast. Experts who study how public issues become framed in people's minds, like Susan Bales of the FrameWorks Institute, say that you can't change views merely with evidence. You have to change the frame.
For Kerry and for Democrats, the frustrating reality is that everything important about George Bush and his presidency is a lie. Bush himself is far more of a phony. As several biographies have documented, he virtually fell upwards, benefiting from family connections to survive a dissolute youth, draft avoidance, and several business failures. But Bush has seized the iconography of the honest cowboy, the regular guy clearing brush on his Texas ranch, the war hero arriving by fighter plane to rescue America. That Kerry actually served in combat, that he made his way upwards with far less family help, gets buried under the smears.
Bush's presidency has been an even bigger lie, beginning with the dishonest way he assumed office and the gap between his moderate posture and his extremist policies. There is such a huge medley of lies that a challenger almost doesn't know where to start.
The tax cuts didn't create jobs. No Child Left Behind is big government without the resources. The deficit will sandbag the economy for decades. The Medicare drug plan is a fake. Privatizing Social Security will leave retirees worse off.
And his national security policy is worse. Whether the venue is Iraq, the phony case for war and the disastrous aftermath, the hit-and-run policy in Afghanistan, North Korea's quest for nuclear weapons, or the vaunted "war on terror" and the Keystone Kops Homeland Security Department, it all leaves America and the world less safe.
But the ordinary citizen is gulled by the stagecraft and numbed by the details. And if Kerry tries to explain the particulars, he plays policy wonk to Bush's John Wayne.
Bush and Cheney keep grabbing headlines with ever more outrageous lies. Just this week, speaking in Michigan, Bush described Kerry's health plan as "a government takeover of health care." In fact, the plan would have government compensate private health plans that faced excessive insurance losses because they had sicker-than-average members. The political press, rather than explaining Bush's lie, played the story as mere attack and counterattack.
In an ideal, civics book democracy, citizens would explore the details and vote based on the merits. But in our frantic, overworked daily lives, where talk show rants pass for public discourse, the truth gets buried by the rhetoric, and the imagery of leadership wins the day.
Successful candidates have seized on a big theme that carried within it both the hopes of ordinary people and the seeds of a program. John Kennedy did it with his "We can do bettah." Bill Clinton succeeded with "putting people first." The idea that people who work hard and play by the rules should earn enough to live decently combined respect for the struggles of ordinary people with the idea that government could help. Ronald Reagan turned the national pessimism of the Carter years into a sunny "Morning in America."
So what on earth is John Kerry to do? He cannot possibly win a hearing to challenge all that is fake about Bush and his policy particulars unless he first changes the frame. First, he needs to reframe Bush by pounding on all the ways that Bush is a fraud, and he needs to do it with grace and wit. Second, he needs a clear, simple vision of a secure, prosperous America more compelling than Bush's vision.
If Kerry doesn't have the nerve to take on Bush, voters will conclude that he lacks the nerve to protect America. Kerry has about two weeks to break the frame before the election freezes into a lock.
Robert Kuttner's is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.