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Brand Assymetries

One common response to my suggestion that if Democrats want to do better with the politics of national security liberals need to think more about the substance of national security as been the "Billy did it too!" defense. This takes note of the fact that the GOP does well on the politics of national security without offering much in the way of policy proposals (what, for example, was it exactly that Bush committed himself to doing in his second term?) so the Democrats don't need to either. That's fair enough, but it's also irrelevant. Democrats need to recognize that the two main brands in American politics are assymetrically situated with regard to national security policy. The Republican brand has been built up over a series of decades, while the Democratic brand was dragged through the mud by the events of 1968-1972. The Carter administration further weakened the brand. The Clinton administration did much to improve the Democratic brand in some other areas, but had little impact on public perceptions of national security.

When, like the GOP, you have a strong brand, you can run a candidate like George W. Bush in 2000 who's obviously very weak personally on national security and still win the "world affairs" vote. The GOP has also been able to get away with switching from marketing a right-realist ideology to marketing a right-idealist ("neoconservative") one, without inducing much cognitive dissonance outside of the chattering classes. This is good for them, but it doesn't work for the party with a weak brand. Democrats have certain branding advantages -- on health care, retirement security, with regard to African-American voters, etc. -- but national security is not one of them. The primary voters in 2004 gambled on the idea that nominating a decorated war hero as the party's salesman would help overcome that branding disadvantage. For quite some time (most notably at the 2004 DNC in Boston), the party's consultants drove forward with this strategy. And it might have worked, too, if the Swift Vets had been more effectively responded to. Or it might not have worked. But either way, it would be useful to be able to expand the list of possible nominees beyond those who've demonstrated personal heroism in combat. That means improving the brand. And given the assymetrical relationship between the two brands, that means you need to do much, much better than the Republicans to get any credit out of it.

I had hoped in 2004 that the Bush administration's evident failures would be enough to put Kerry into office. But my hopes were dashed. The underlying weakness of the Democratic brand prevented a large number of people who were disquieted by the incumbent's performance from rushing to embrace the challenger. Something must be done to change that situation. Going and taking a long look at what liberal security people are putting forward as substantive policy is a good first step. There's a need for the marketing people to familiarize themselves with the product so they can come up with a less vacuous sales pitch than "respected in the world."

November 14, 2004 | Permalink


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» Brand conscious from coffee grounds
Matt Yglesias and Noam Schieber discuss how Kerry needed to clear a big hurdle to overcome voters' assumptions that Democrats were "soft" on national security. The problem is that voters don't remember the 1930s and 1940s when it was the... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 15, 2004 10:17:55 AM

» Democrats and Foreign Policy from Sebastian Holsclaw
I know this seems like an unusually dead horse to bother beating, but American foreign policy would be best served by having two parties both strong on national security so we can adequately debate the best course forward on the... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 16, 2004 3:14:23 AM

» Democrats and Foreign Policy from Sebastian Holsclaw
I know this seems like an unusually dead horse to bother beating, but American foreign policy would be best served by having two parties both strong on national security so we can adequately debate the best course forward on the... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 16, 2004 3:31:26 AM


Good points.

Yes, what was it with "respected in the world"? When people are worried about re-gaining the respect of others, it's usually in a situation in which they've done something terribly shameful and must be effusively apologetic and self-effacing. Now maybe that was actually what we needed to do after Bush, but surely not a very good sales pitch, especially given the brand weakness you note.

Posted by: Ruttiger | Nov 14, 2004 12:04:17 PM

I guess everyone really should focus on the state-sponsored/non-state-sponsored GOP/Dem split on terrorism, for a start. A lot of well-informed people haven't been exposed to it at all. On an e-mail list with a bunch of people I grew up with in red-state Kentucky, we had a pre-election discussion thread a few weeks ago, and I did an expose on the state/non-state sponsored issue, mostly culling stuff from various Prospect/TNR/Wash. Monthly articles. Several of my conservative friends, who follow politics very closely, were pretty blown away by ideas that they said they'd never seen expressed before.

Still, there's a lot longer way to go beyond that. The national security debate in this country has been infantilized for decades, to the point of simply talking about who's "tough" and who isn't. There's a hell of a lot of stupidity to overcome that will be quite resistant to any actual idea-based discussions.

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 14, 2004 12:05:14 PM

I didn't really do an "expose" on my e-mail list--I guess I temporarily thought that was a synonym for "a long e-mail message."

Posted by: Haggai | Nov 14, 2004 12:09:12 PM

You're 100% right about this.

What I find hilarious (and more than a bit worrisome) is that so much of the response to the election by Democrats seems to ignore this. It's not that people are kidding themselves about the need to make some changes (well, some people are), but people failing to appreciate what chnages need to be made. You hear all these paniced dems talking about he "need" to move to the right on social issues; it's all bullshit. Timothy Burke and Russell Areben Fox are going back and forth on how to remake the democratic party - both suggest a radical remake, but in different directions - without either one of them even mentioning the war. To coin a phrase, it's the war, stupid.

Which of course doesn't mean we need to buy into the Bush vision of the war. As you say, there is lots of good thinking on the center left about fighting terrorism. Properly articulated, it would appeal to the (at least) 1/6 of the electorate that (1) isn't comfortable with the religous right but (2) wasn't convinced that Kerry was going to be sufficiently tough on the terrorists. You get 1/3 of that 1/6, and 48/51 becomes 53/47.

Posted by: Larry M | Nov 14, 2004 12:13:07 PM

Your basic point on the branding seems
correct and useful. But as an
alternative approach, rather than
improving our product, I would suggest
that we take a leaf out of Karl Rove's
book and concentrate on attacking the
other guy's product. Because frankly,
I think the Democratic policies are
just about fine (and indeed, these
policies were what worked well for
several decades and were accepted as
a bipartisan consensus at least until
1992). Whereas the Bush/neocon
policies absolutely stink, both
morally and practically - it's like
hiring a remodelling contractor whose
only tool is a sledgehammer, and when
you complain that the project isn't
going so well the only answer is to
say well, we just haven't knocked
down enough walls yet. At some point
you knock down too many load-bearing
walls and the roof falls down on your
head ...

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 14, 2004 12:14:37 PM

1> I agree with the comments viz 'branding' but would like to point out that building up the R brand-name on being tougher was accomplished by being, on the whole, actually tougher, at least initially.

2> So far I've read the Progressive Internationalism document, which sounds like warmed-over neo-conservatism. (Half as filling, twice the calories.) However, I am busy with a large spreadsheet on Hispanic voting in Texas, so a disassembly would have to wait, assuming anybody wanted to read that which I doubt.

The short version on actual policy is that 1> We cannot get sucked into every feud in the world.

2> We cannot save everyone in the world. We can (maybe) help a lot of them.

3> We cannot ignore the place of ethnic identity in the formation of stable nations. If two (or three or four...) groups of people irreconciably hate each other, a big heaping of 'multiethnic' democracy will not help matters. And in most of these fights are irreconciable.

4> A real, muscular world government anytime soon would be a disaster. Unless you want Zimbabwe helping to dictate who were are at war with. OTOH, the UN as is does quite a bit of good. Getting rid of it would be wasteful.

5> We cannot maintain world dominance with 'hard power' if we won't pay for the military. We cannot maintain world dominance via 'soft power' if our economy sucks and people hate us. In either case, I am not sure why would want to maintain world dominance (as opposed to being the leading country in the world). We do not, as far as I can see, get anything out of it. Why shouldn't the Europeans become stronger? Provided we aren't trying to dominate them, they should serve as a buttress for things we like, such as democracy.

6> What the fuck is 'military transformation'? I keep hearing the phrase, but as far as I can see, the intent is to a> add a lot of expensive gizmos without consideration of return b> make things more like Tom Clancy novels and c> engage in a lot of business school thinking without concern for the age-old lessons of military history. Everyone seems to assume we will be fighting wars exactly like Iraq I, or Iraq II, which may be true. However, it rarely turns out that you wind up fighting the war that foresaw. (The exception in the US is WWII, but a lot of pre-war thinking was also wrong.) As a practical matter, you can't prepare for every situation to the same degree, but if you slant your prepardness entirely towards one concept you wind up...uh, like we are now. In either event, if we intend to be overseas a lot, we cannot neglect the army for cruise missles. And we are no where near achieving an actual 'lock-out', no matter how much the SDoD fantasizes about it. Particularly since technological advances often come by surprise.

The example du jour (what's 'of the year'?) would be Darfur. The Fur were forcibly agglomerated with a bunch of other minorities by the British to form the Sudan. It turns out (surprise) that all these groups hate each other. Unfortunately, the only military branch that isn't caught short at the moment is the Navy, which is not much help in the situation. Nonetheless Kristof, for one, feels the need to 'do something'. The solution seems to be, 'let's replay Yugoslavia, and encourage them to be nice to each other'. Or perhaps replay Iraq in the 90's. Whatever. A 'We Are The World' charity benefit of wars. Which is a non-starter. If we actually gave a damn, wouldn't it better all around in the long run to encourage the disassembly of the Sudan into its component parts? Particularly since that would be cheaper and might actually END at some point? I don't any support for that, cuz it's um, evil or something. Leaving us with a choice of 'right-wing idealism' which amounts to engaging in humanitarian escapades only in countries where we will find it profitable, or 'left-wing idealism' wherein we expend American lives only when it is of absolutely of no benefit to us, and probably will not achieve any permanent solution (perhaps 'hopefully' - if there's no humanitarian crisis, they might not need the humanitarians).

Having written all that crap, I guess I am arguing against liberal internationalism, neo-conservative idealism and the like and arguing FOR something like 'liberal realism'.

(Hrmmm. That is, we're in favor of democracy and food, against tyranny and murder, fine with international cooperation without needing to get excessive about it or expecting too much (we made one UN, we can make another one), and are hopeful the world is progressing to the 'sunnier uplands of history' but we're not betting the farm on it. We will always have to tolerate people we don't like. We may be exceptional, but we're not an exception, history won't end until the human race is gone, and we might not be around forever, so let's just skip excessive highs and lows and get to work. Power corrupts.)

Hah. I sound like a politician of some sort. BLAH.

['I'll shut up now.']

Posted by: ash | Nov 14, 2004 12:33:32 PM

I think the problem is deeper than Matt is willing to admit. It isn't just the elite operative community that has a problem; the Democratic base as a whole needs to think hard about how to communicate that we, too, want to defeat terrorism and keep Americans safe generally. Like it or not, we're part of the brand, too.

Apropos of Matt's post, if anyone here has thoughts they'd like to contribute to a (very) new wiki-based collaborative site, Liberals Against Terrorism, you're welcome to do so.

Posted by: praktike | Nov 14, 2004 12:34:32 PM

oops, bad link. Here it is.

Posted by: praktike | Nov 14, 2004 12:35:12 PM

Agreed. Good points on this thread by all. But I still think we need to pass a "toughness" threshhold. Don't need to be veterans, or have a cauliflower ear, but need to look authentically willing, if not eager, to rape and kill. Or just fight.

I refer you to the following post on Nelson & Reid. There does seem to be a lack of meanness in Democrats, a lack of spine. This is intangible. I was thinking about Johnson beating Goldwater in 64, by being tough enough, but playing against Goldwater's "drop the big one" foreign policy. (This is to drive righties crazy, a myth exists that the daisy ad was misleading; typical bullshit by Republicans). Johnson's strategy could have worked this year, if Kerry had passed the threshhold. He didn't.

Ask Republicans. I bet they might say that Barney Frank or Hilary looks "tough enough."

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Nov 14, 2004 12:55:15 PM


Oh, jeez, homonyms are one issue, but "assymetries"?

Don't they have spell checkers in this blogging software?

Posted by: raj | Nov 14, 2004 1:04:02 PM

This is somewhat peripheral, but I'd just like to note that Nixon lost the war in Vietnam the same way Humphrey or McGovern would have. The difference is that he laid waste to SE Asia before cutting and running. Nixon's credibility was sort of fishy, though it was good domestic politics.

Likewise one of Carter's big problems was probably seriously exacerbated by behind-the-scenes dealing by the Reagan campaign. The hostage release right during the inauguration had to be a tipoff, and later Reagan dealing with Iran were a continuation of that (Reagan was very happy with the godly Iranians, or pretended to be).

There is reason to believe that the Nixon campaign also cut secret deals with the S Vietnames.
I think that we have to distinguish the actul problem from the perception problem. I remain a half-dove, and do not accept the most alarmist and demagogic assessments of the actual threat.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 14, 2004 1:24:38 PM

When, like the GOP, you have a strong brand . . .

Perhaps. But maybe the fact that the GOP has assembled and implemented the most prolific propaganda machine known to mankind has something to do with it.

Posted by: Matt Taylor | Nov 14, 2004 1:36:47 PM

National security?

Two words: Wes Clark

Posted by: johninhouston | Nov 14, 2004 2:16:55 PM

The problem in a nutshell is that no policy declaration or soundbite can make voters "feel" safer. It's a totally subjective concept. Voters "feel" safer with Bush and the Republicans because a) tough talk is cheap, and b) Bush is the incumbent.
Democrats can come up with ideas till their ears bleed to make our country safer from Islamic terrorism and any other violent foe. They can yell until they're blue in the face about the enormously risky Bush policies (a good news CIA!) now in place.
And it won't do a bit of good until something happens to convince those voters they're not as safe as they could be. Unhappily, even the most benign possible such event, like a financial crisis caused by our foreign indebtedness, would be a catastrophe for our nation.

Posted by: Michael Gee | Nov 14, 2004 2:17:58 PM

The current administration’s Foreign Policy, “When All You Have Is A Hammer, Everything Looks Like A Nail” will become the US foreign policy over the next four year. What this means for our country, and what this means for the world, should horrify all of us. Because of his reliance of advisors and having a shallow pool of alternate solutions, Bush is already locked into this thinking. Since he is making no changes at the Pentagon, one can assume that the Feith, Wurmser, Perle troika will continue to lead the way.

There are of course other alternatives; and no, PNAC-lite is not one of them. At the end of the Cold War those ideas were slow in forming; our place in the world not yet defined. Nevertheless, during the Clinton years a new policy did begin to take shape. With the public focused on Wall Street, it never received the attention it needed or the critique it demanded. Without that focus it did not become a evolved policy and remained in 2000 a set of actions taken, ideas explored. That vacuum of set policy has been filled by the monstrous.

Of all of the Democrats, General Clark has been the most vocal and one could say the most knowledgeable about the need to formulate a new direction for the party. In a recent speech at Johns Hopkins, Clark outlined exactly where the Democrats need to go. (CSPAN carried this speech, and this writer would suggest that you see it.) There is no reason the Democrats have let their credentials languish into the laughable. Unlike Colin Powell, a general that the Republican’s disagree with on all sorts of issues but eagerly welcomed, General Clark came to the Democratic side agreeing with the party, only to be sidelined by the insiders.

And so, here we are. Democrats touting the virtues of their favorite “light weights” and per usual, cutting off the votes despite the polls.

Posted by: Donna Z | Nov 14, 2004 2:46:49 PM

From a foreign policy heavyweight who also speaks Democratic:

Wes Clark's article in this morning's Washington Post.

Posted by: Carol G | Nov 14, 2004 2:59:39 PM

I'll point out another problem with this
idea: when you don't hold the presidency,
you don't get to fight any wars. The
voters the Dems need to persuade are
precisely those who won't be impressed
by any number of detailed policy
proposals and tough talk - the President
gets to order troops into battle and
generally kick butt, and that trumps
any number of speeches.

Having said that, claiming the Powell
doctrine for the Dems would be a good
place to start both tactically and
strategically, since moderate Repubs
know that it's wise and correct, and
Bush has clearly ditched it in Iraq.
But it's hard to guess what will play
well with voters in 2008 - much can
happen before then.

Posted by: Richard Cownie | Nov 14, 2004 3:04:11 PM

Sorry to be a bore...but,

General Clark was part of the dozen at the table who wrote what was to become known as: the Powell Doctrine. I would give Clark more credit than he normally gives himself, and assert the heart of that doctrine may be found in Clark's Masters Thesis which deconstructed the Pentagon Papers.

Okay. Enough about the Democrat's General.

Posted by: Donna Z | Nov 14, 2004 3:56:08 PM

I think you're absolutely right, but the problem is circular: because the Democratic brand on national security is weaker, Democrats can't possibly get any credit for improving it by any means other than actually being in charge. But they won't be put in charge unless they improve the brand. Just one more reason why the country is completely, irretrievably fucked.

Posted by: Tom Hilton | Nov 14, 2004 4:16:03 PM

Ash asked, What the fuck is 'military transformation'?

You know all this, but I'll review. The army hasn't had a big change-around since they decided the big mission wasn't to fight the USSR in europe. I'm pretty unclear what the intention was against the USSR in europe since the doctrine was that if they attacked we'd start using tactical nukes and they'd immediately proceed to global thermonuclear war, but still we had a bunch of tanks and a whole lot of expensive antitank stuff and all, and if the russians had staged a faint half-hearted attack on western europe we maybe could have beat them off without using the nukes.

So now we figure we won't do that. No fighting russia or china or india. What we expect to do is fight a bunch of moderate-size third-world nations that have old surplus russian tanks they mostly don't know how to use, whose communications we can jam so they'll be reduced to sending pigeons or messengers, something like that.

The gulf war showed we weren't well set up to do that kind of war. Even with a lot of equipment somewhat preplaced it took us about a year to ship enough equipment to attack kuwait. If the iraqis had taken saudi arabia before we were ready we would have been left invading through jordan or something as bad. So one priority was to fight wars against third-world nations without having to ship so much equipment, or use so many people. We used to talk like we could fight two wars at the same time, but the attack on kuwait took everything we had and more. Maybe it didn't need to, but the Powell Doctrined called for it to. But we might easily need to fight three dinky third world nations at the same time. Or maybe six. So we needed an alternative. Lighter forces that can move into position quick, win, and quickly ship out to the next war.

As near as I can figure it the idea was to use computerised communications and GPS to keep close track of where our guys are and where the enemy is. Our guys would have very fast transportation, fast armored cars and helicopters. We'd spread out and find the enemy and call in air strikes. If the enemy was strong enough to threaten our light forces we'd move fast and concentrate into a locally superior force and call in air strikes.

Shinseki had been proposing something like that and he was working on getting a consensus among the generals. It was slow going, they kept on coming up with reasonable objections and it kept getting revised to meed their objections. Then Rumsfeld came in with his own plan and didn't allow objections. He wanted to try it out. Iraq was going to be a sort of test run, the iraqis were weak enough that if things didn't work out we still couldn't fail. Apparently they were able to ship the supplies this time in less than six months. The helicopters which were pretty good at getting past hitech attacks got shot up by massed small-arms fire; that didn't work out. We didn't find out how well the new ideas would work against enemy tanks. The iraqis figured that moving tanks would just get blown up right away so they treated them as fixed guns and we blew them up right away. We probably blew up a whole lot of decoys too but that didn't matter, we just sent airstrikes against anything that looked like a tank and it turned out we had more PGMs than they had decoys. Maybe we don't need to test our stuff against tanks. The special communications depended on a bunch of servers in airconditioned vans. I didn't see anything about how many backups they had. Luckily the airconditioning never failed, and the vans were never attacked etc. Apart from the helicopters everything that went wrong looked like it would be easy to fix provided Rumsfeld let them be fixed.

Plus of course the problem of what to do with the third-world nation after defeating their army. Somehow that wasn't such a big problem in panama.

I doubt there's any consensus yet about the changes. The guys in the heavy tanks naturally think there's still lots of need for them. And they do look intimidating parked at city intersections warning insurgents away although every now and then we lose one. Ideally the big transformation will be a training one, so the same soldiers can effectively maneuver heavy tanks, or lighter armor, or become helicopter-infantry or MPs or garrison troops at a moment's notice. Ideally we'd learn to train them quick too.

Posted by: J Thomas | Nov 14, 2004 4:41:40 PM

Ash wrote, "I guess I am arguing against liberal internationalism, neo-conservative idealism and the like and arguing FOR something like 'liberal realism'.

"(Hrmmm. That is, we're in favor of democracy and food, against tyranny and murder, fine with international cooperation without needing to get excessive about it or expecting too much (we made one UN, we can make another one), and are hopeful the world is progressing to the 'sunnier uplands of history' but we're not betting the farm on it. We will always have to tolerate people we don't like. We may be exceptional, but we're not an exception, history won't end until the human race is gone, and we might not be around forever, so let's just skip excessive highs and lows and get to work. Power corrupts.)"

That sounds very good to me. I hope the Libertarian/Green/Xemocratic party will go with something like that.

Posted by: J Thomas | Nov 14, 2004 4:46:20 PM

Matt Taylor wrote, But maybe the fact that the GOP has assembled and implemented the most prolific propaganda machine known to mankind has something to do with it.

Yes. It appears there are a whole lot of people who get all their news from Fox, and from talk radio, and maybe from their church.

If they don't hear anything else, how can you possibly reach them?

Ideally somebody would set up a reality-based talk-radio show that would somehow get a degree of coverage. It should be conservative with traditional conservative values but it should bring up the sort of news that gets brushed aside by current talk radio. I don't know whether that's possible, but it seems more plausible than infiltrating Fox or churches.

Posted by: J Thomas | Nov 14, 2004 5:20:51 PM

I had hoped in 2004 that the Bush administration's evident failures would be enough to put Kerry into office.

The problem for you Democrats is that the "failures" are only "evident" to those who are deep, DEEP inside the left-wing cocoon, like Matthew. To the majority of the country, the "failures" aren't failures, and the people to whom they are "evident" are delusional.

Posted by: Al | Nov 14, 2004 5:28:04 PM

Yes, people who watch only Fox News are well-informed critical thinkers, unlike us delusional cocooners.

Al, we KNOW y'all got 51% of the votes. But 51% of the people can be wrong! Give reasons, please. Don't depend on your idiot majority to intimidate us.

Posted by: John Emerson | Nov 14, 2004 7:35:29 PM

Hey, Matt's thinking like Karl Rove. The Dems better hurry up their rebranding, because Karl is already working hard to rebrand Republicanism as better on education (NCLB), health (medical savings accounts and prescription drugs), and general doogooderism (AIDS in Africa, funding faith based groups, etc.). I'm not a fan of any of that, but its clearly politically smart.

If the Dems were smart they'd put their personal feelings behind them on the use of the military and fighting foreign wars that cost lives and tack hard to the right of the Republicans.

Posted by: Reg | Nov 14, 2004 9:16:22 PM

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