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Ten Words

August 12th, 2004

“There it is. That’s the ten-word answer my staff’s been looking for for two weeks. There it
is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They’re the tip of the sword.
Here’s my question: What are the next ten words of your answer? Your taxes are too high?
So are mine. Give me the next ten words. How are we going to do it? Give me ten after
that, I’ll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while… every once in a
while, there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost
always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments
in leading a country that’s way too big for ten words.”

–President Bartlet, in the West Wing episode “Game On

In the game of “Ten Words,” Bush has been winning the game.

Last September, after several weeks of claiming that he could invade Iraq without the permission of Congress (his staff even put together a list of legal justifications for doing so), Bush flip-flopped and put before the Senate a request to grant him war powers. Kerry agonized over whether or not to grant those powers; as other Democrats such as Barbara Boxer were saying that we should not trust the president, Kerry finally decided to back the resolution, but not without conditions or reservations:

“Let there be no doubt or confusion,” Kerry said. “I will support a multilateral effort to disarm [Hussein] by force, if we ever exhaust those other options as the president has promised. But I will not support a unilateral U.S. war against Iraq unless that threat is imminent and the multilateral effort has not proven possible.”

There was nothing in the resolution that guaranteed those conditions would be met. Nonetheless, he was one of 29 Democrats to vote for the resolution, which passed 77 to 23.

In his Senate speech, Kerry had said, “I will be among the first to speak out” if Bush failed to seek international support and go to war as a last resort.

It is important to remember that these were words Kerry spoke on the floor of the Senate last October, not this summer; it is important to remember that Bush had promised to exhaust all diplomatic options, to allow the weapons inspectors to finish their work, to build a true coalition and to get the full backing of the U.N. And it is important to remember that Bush broke those promises, and that he appears to have never intended to keep them at all; in this sense, Bush was a flip-flopper at least, and an outright dishonest liar at worst.

But that isn’t stopping Bush from trying to make Kerry look like the flip-flopper instead of himself. The first criticism he laid on Kerry was, if going into Iraq was wrong, then why did you vote for it? That answer was easy enough for Kerry to answer: because you promised to go only as a last resort (ten words exactly!). So now Bush has formulated a different ten-word attack: Knowing what you know now, would you still vote for it?

“Kerry has always had this vulnerability of looking flip-floppy on the issue and Bush is using this very shrewdly,” said Walter Russell Mead, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. He added “Being silent on the question makes him look evasive, and saying something, anything, gets him in trouble with one side of his party or another.” (NYT)

Kerry answered that he would have done so, but again, only if Bush had kept the same promise he had made before–to use force only as a last resort, and only with a true coalition and the backing of the U.N.

Unfortunately, that was not only just a little bit too long for ten words, but it also contained a conditional, which is a seeming contradiction in this context, if one does not examine beyond the ten-word limit. And Bush has been using the tip of that sword to skewer Kerry. And it is true, a lot of Democrats don’t like Kerry’s answer; I myself feel that even with what we knew before we found there were no WMD, that we shouldn’t have gone to war–but I am comfortable with Kerry’s conditions about what should be done first.

The problem is, Bush’s great skill with the ten-word sword and the perception of Kerry unconditionally approving of what Bush did have been wounding Kerry in the media and in public perception recently.

Sometimes it is painful to know that your guy is right and the other guy is not only wrong, but also a lying, deceptive bastard, and yet you can still clearly understand how people can see it the other way around.

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  1. Enumclaw
    August 12th, 2004 at 16:07 | #1

    Great post. I think the ten-word answer is the difference between the truly great politicians, and the guys who were excellent at the job, wicked smart, but just not able to capture the public’s attention.

    Kerry, I’m afraid, is never going to be one of those natural ten-word answer guys… but with coaching and aggression, and a willingness to GET NASTY with his tone and assertiveness, he could do a decent enough job to stick with Bush. I think/hope.

    I think his ten-word answer to “Knowing what you know now, would you still vote for it?” should be:

    “Well, now that we know you were misleading us, no.” Ten on the nose. :)

    Or “Now we know you were lying about WMD and lying about war being the last resort, so no.” 18 words, too many. Sigh. This is a harder game than it looks.

    FWIW, I know a ten-word answer guy. I honestly think he’s got what it takes to be a great President of the United States, but for now he’s busy being president of my union (NATCA). But remember this name: John Carr.

    If he decides to sacrifice enough of the family life (guy has four kids in diapers, with the youngest three triplets) he can do whatever he wants. Anything. Seriously.


  2. August 17th, 2004 at 16:57 | #2

    I think you found the crux of Democrat’s marketing problem.

    Clinton said during the Jon Stewart interview that the party does better when people think!

    The challenge is to find ten words that make people think…

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