We are at a potentially critical moment in the presidential race over the Democrats’ attempts to make Romney’s Swiss bank account, Cayman Island investment funds, and secret tax returns into what the Republicans’ Swift Boating effort was for John Kerry in 2004.
It has long been clear that the Bush re-elect strategy would be highly instructive on the question of whether President Obama could win another term. Once again, we have an incumbent running in an environment so brutal that he can’t win an up-or-down referendum on his term. Thus, Obama, like Bush, has to make the election a choice between two options and disqualify the other option.
We are in a radically different politico-media age than we were just eight years ago, so the metrics for measuring whether such an effort is working have been transformed. Still, there are some aspects of the Swift Boating that don’t seem to be present for the Democrats, at least not yet.
- The Swift Boat line of attack went along the info-news conveyor belt from some limited paid media and a book, to right-leaning earned media, to cable news, to the broadcast networks and major print publications. So far, that hasn’t happened with the Obama attack. New media allows the Democrats on their own to spread the message through literally hundreds of platforms, but that doesn’t mean it will take over big-time earned media and dominate the campaign discourse, the way Swift Boats did.
- The Swift Boat story was infused with a lot of emotion, for the accusers, for Kerry, and for many of the senior media decision makers of the time who had Vietnam-era ties. Emotion drives a lot in politics. At this point, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of genuine emotion involved in any part of the Romney story. (Except for Ben LaBolt’s obvious outrage.)
- The Swift Boat story discombobulated Kerry for all sorts of reasons. After stumbling on these issues during the Republican nomination fight, Romney lately seems unfazed by new attacks on how he made and consolidated his wealth.
Democrats are going to keep hammering this issue and for all we know it is already working with swing state voters to help disqualify Romney, which is the only metric that matters in the end. But at this point, there’s reason to believe the Bush template is imperfect.
(I should make clear: this post is about the politics of bringing down a rival. It is NOT meant to adjudicate the accuracy, relevance, or fairness of the two attacks.)