When it comes to running national campaigns these days, Democrats and Republicans are wired differently. The two parties have developed starkly different cultures and habits that are on vivid display now in the presidential race and may prove decisive come November.
Republicans today run their political operations by a clear chain of command. The current crowd of Democrats run theirs by committee. Republicans try to stay out of the press and feign indifference about what gets written about their skills. Democrats provide the press with an ongoing background narration of their campaigns, and tend to treat national reporters as therapists. The people running President Bush's reelection campaign operate on the theory that you're either being scored on or doing the scoring. The people at the top of Sen. John Kerry's campaign seemed to believe -- at least until their candidate's slide in the polls after the GOP convention -- that if they got their man a lead, he could win by running out the clock.
Much of the current Democratic campaign culture -- the group-run approach, giving the press an "inside" look at the process -- can be traced back to Bill Clinton's winning effort in 1992. At the same time, Clinton also had his attack-dog "war room," run by James Carville and crew, which inspired the eponymous campaign documentary. But with Al Gore's campaign in 2000, and now the Kerry campaign in 2004, the scrappy war room has given way to a bureaucratic cult of personalities.
Nowhere has the contrast between the two parties been starker than in the dueling assaults on the candidates' Vietnam-era service. Ever since Kerry's sluggish response in August to GOP attacks on his military record, the Massachusetts senator has faced a steady chorus of not just private but quite public complaints from fellow Democrats about his campaign skills, his strategy, his advisers and his message. Kerry has handled these problems in a characteristically Democratic way: He has not fired anyone he regards as not up to the job. Nor has he brushed off the critics by backing up his team. Rather than sharpen lines of authority, he has invited a new group of advisers to join the old ones in his campaign club, ensuring that accountability for decisions and results will be even more muddled than before.
Compare that to the Bush campaign's reaction to the "60 Minutes" report about Bush's Air National Guard service. GOP partisans outside the Bush campaign quickly questioned the authenticity of the documents that CBS claimed to have unearthed, while the Bush campaign itself stayed out of the fray. Enough legitimate doubts have since been raised about the documents to shift the focus from Bush's service to CBS's newsgathering judgment.
The events of the past few weeks, combined with Bush's recent rise in the polls, have revived a longtime Democratic phobia that was briefly suppressed during Bill Clinton's back-to-back campaigns: Could it be that they are not hard-nosed enough -- some would say mean enough -- for today's politics? National Journal independent political analyst Charles Cook phrased it this way: "I think there is a naive view among Democrats that what you have to do is 'demonstrate a vision and tell the truth' and you win. Republicans know that you need to tear your opponent's heart out, chew it up and spit it out."
As someone who is covering both campaigns intensively, let me state for the record that Democrats and Republicans are on a par when it comes to good manners, personal hygiene and kindness to people who need help crossing the street. But after observing presidential politics for more than a decade, I have concluded that today's crop of Democrats are right to worry that they lack the laser focus and ruthless efficiency of the current GOP -- or even the Clinton campaign.
Since the days of the Clinton war room, the Democrats have treated presidential campaigns as clubs in which an increasing number of advisers "pitch in." In contrast, the more hierarchical Bush campaign has added only one senior aide during the general election fight thus far: Karen Hughes, in a long-planned move. Kerry, in his latest round of hirings, has layered his upper ranks with longtime political professionals from the Clinton era, the party's last winning team. Those advisers turn to other former Clinton aides for informal help. Carville, the strategist taking the highest-profile role, isn't even on the payroll. Longtime Kerry loyalists are an ever-decreasing fraction of the nominee's team.
The Clinton alumni join a senior staff that includes two pollsters and two ad makers -- prompting jokes about a "Noah's Ark" of consultants. A series of press briefings given by the Kerry campaign's senior staff in New York during the Republican convention left many journalists with the impression that there was no single person in charge, no one with ultimate decision-making authority. Such a top-heavy structure can cause delays in decision-making, with only "lowest common denominator" choices being made without internal debate.
This amorphous organization has had trouble channeling the visceral desire among the party's left and other constituencies to defeat Bush, much less matching the Bush campaign's single-minded determination to beat Kerry.
Republicans today understand that presidential races are about character and personality, whereas the Democrats' instinct is to try to beat their opponent into submission with sheaves of policy papers. (If that doesn't work, they tear each other down in the press instead.)
The last two Democratic presidents, Clinton and Jimmy Carter, didn't win by making their opponents appear unelectable; they were aided by a widespread desire for change. If Bush wins a second term, it will be -- at least partly -- because his campaign and groups like the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth made Kerry seem personally objectionable, and Kerry hasn't established a clear enough sense of himself to brush aside those attacks.
Asked during the GOP convention to outline the Kerry messages, positive and negative, a Kerry senior adviser said they were "still honing" -- a startling admission with Election Day less than nine weeks away.
One veteran Democratic strategist described the contrast between the two parties this way: In launching and countering attacks, Republicans know that "it often takes the truth a while to catch up, whereas Democrats believe that if something clearly is not true, some imaginary referee will come down and blow a whistle."
After Democratic Sen. Zell Miller launched his fire-and-brimstone attack against Kerry at the Republican convention, many Democrats believed Miller came across as too angry and laughed at his batty post-speech TV interviews, convinced that voters would see him as a flawed messenger. But a Bush campaign adviser says that, based on polling, Miller added credibility to the GOP criticisms of Kerry and helped move some swing voters toward Bush.
And throughout August, the Democrats' roughest month to date, Kerry advisers insisted that taking the high road amid attacks on Kerry's Vietnam service by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was the way to go. They referred to polling and focus group data showing that negativity turns voters off. Meanwhile, several Democratic consultants not working for the Kerry campaign cringed in frustration as their own experience and polling data told them the charges were resonating.
The Bush campaign doesn't go into a defensive crouch. When attacked, it does a quick two-step, moving quickly from defense to offense so the coverage of their reaction includes an immediate and even preemptive strike against the credibility of the source -- be it "60 Minutes" or the new Kitty Kelley book on the Bush family that began to make the pre-publication publicity rounds last week.
The Democrats finally seem to have recognized the imbalance in the two campaigns' approaches: Since the end of the GOP convention and Bush's rise to an 11 percentage point margin in two separate media polls, Kerry has attacked Bush daily on the stump.
But at the same time, that first weekend of the fall campaign really revealed the current Democratic approach to campaigns at its worst. The culture of blame and territoriality, and a lack of personal investment in the candidate, led Kerry campaigners to engage in a lot of finger-pointing while talking with political reporters about Kerry's drop in the polls. Not that the two surveys showing Bush with a double-digit lead weren't a legitimately rude shock for Democrats, after the race was tied or leaning Kerry's way for months. But the Bush crowd, if they were in a similar position, would run to Karl Rove, not to the media. After counseling them to calm down, Rove would have reminded them that the election is a contest of weeks and months, not days.
A Bush campaign official suggests that the Kerry team's tendency to focus more on each news cycle rather than on the long haul could explain Democrats' uneven efforts to manage expectations -- including their own. Many Democratic officials, inside the Kerry campaign and out, appear to need reminding that their guy hasn't lost yet -- and, indeed, can win.
It's crucial to keep in mind, however, that a presidential campaign reflects the candidates, and some of the Democrats' problems are caused by the nominee himself. Longtime Kerry observers know he has some killer instincts, as shown when he's running behind. But it's also a Kerry adage that his advisers compete to be the last one he speaks with before going to sleep, on the theory that this adviser will hold sway for the night. If that's true, Kerry is not the kind of candidate to demand a structured and disciplined operation.
The Bush approach to campaigning carries its own disadvantages. A black-and-white worldview and a corporate structure with a clear chain of command, characteristic of the candidate's own outlook and background, allow for less flexibility in this event-driven, 24/7 cable news era. But at root, the Bush campaign is a collection of doggedly loyal operatives who believe in their man. When faced with bad news, they stick to their message, focusing on winning the election more than on winning the day.