Put a Nutjob to Work For You
Politicians are traditionally very careful about stirring up the passions of the nutjob fringe. It’s much easier to recruit a mob than to steer them or send them home. But for those who care more about short term wins than long term consequences, a strategy built around crafted lunacy can pay dividends.
The various campaigns of George Bush, Jr. made particularly aggressive use of the Nutjob Gambit. In the process they produced one of the most darkly elegant examples of the tactic ever deployed.
Bush faced numerous problems as he went into the ’04 election, but one of his worst related to his core message. He needed to be the toughest candidate, the best man to lead the “War on Terror.” But his opponent was a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. John Kerry was an Ivy Leaguer who had not only volunteered to serve, but to go into combat. He was wounded in action and decorated for valor. Bush, on the other hand, had a different experience of the Vietnam War Era, landing a highly coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard, which shielded him from an overseas deployment. His record of service in the guard was cloudy and the means by which he landed that plum position were open to question.
The Bush campaign managed to blunt the impact of both men’s military records by a sophisticated proxy effort to malign Kerry’s service. A third party media blitz “developed” that questioned the details of each of his three Purple Hearts, his Bronze Star, and his Silver Star. Interestingly, and this is very important, they made little effort to attack Kerry on the ground where he could credibly have been criticized – for his anti-war activities after returning home. Instead, they made nonsensical claims about his military service that could not be substantiated.
The claims against Kerry were irrelevant, incoherent, and dubious on the surface. None of them could be proven and almost all of them were disputed by witnesses or documentation. So, you might ask, why would the campaign choose to attack Kerry using such ridiculous tactics instead of forcing him to explain why he hurled his medals over the White House fence?
This is the crux of the Nutjob Gambit. Kerry could very capably explain what he did in protesting the war. People might agree or disagree with his arguments, but they don’t make him look ridiculous. Such an attack doesn’t produce the same belittling effect as forcing him to stand in front of a camera and respond to nutjob claims.
Besides, locked in a grueling overseas war initiated under what I think we can agree to call ‘unfortunate’ circumstances, the last thing the Bush campaign wanted to do was conjure the ghosts of the Vietnam Era protest movement. The tactic was played with expert precision. At the height of the campaign, the public wasn’t debating Iraq, or WMD’s, or the failure to get Bin Laden, but openly puzzling out whether Kerry exaggerated his military service. It was nuts and Kerry never figured out how to either defend himself from the unfounded smears, or to call out President Bush on the proxy tactic. It was the perfect execution of the Nutjob Gambit.
Did it work? Yea, it worked. Bush won the ’04 election on another razor-thin margin. Had 80,000 Ohioans voted differently, the Bush era would have ended early. But, what is the long-term impact of these tactics, so repeatedly played? What happens when you train the public to put party loyalty over not just ethics, but over reason itself?