The Democratic Party has been searching for a way of attacking George Bush that they hope will fire public indignation and spark popular outrage. It is one thing for hardcore Democrats, amongst themselves, to deride and deplore the President; it is quite another to grab hold of an issue that will galvanize the general population into vehement opposition to the President.
Most recently, the leading lights of the Democratic Party, including Al Gore, John Kerry, and Hillary Clinton, have attempted to use the issue of "domestic surveillance" or "spying" as a vehicle to achieve their goal of arousing populist ire against Bush. But the question is, Will it do the trick? Will this become a rallying cry capable of turning popular sentiment against the President?
Note, please, that I am not addressing the question of whether such surveillance or spying is right or wrong. To use the language of marketing, I am only concerned with whether the Democrats can "sell" this particular product to its target audience, namely, the American people. Will they buy it in sufficient quantities to create a generalized firestorm of protest against the President?
But before we try to answer this question, let us consider the role of marketing in politics.
Political parties in democratic societies often confront the same two problems that businesses confront in a free market. First they must find a product that has the potential of mass appeal, and second they must figure out a way of successfully marketing this product to the general public. Sometimes a company like McDonald's will begin with a product that has an established track record of success, namely, the humble hamburger -- but through an ingenious method of marketing, the company will seize the imagination of the general public and persuade it to buy their hamburger instead of the hamburgers offered by their less market-savvy competitors. Yet, at the same time, it should be obvious that no amount of market savvy could save a company that tried to convince the American public to eat dog-burgers, not even if there were billboards everywhere depicting adorable cats scrawling the words "EAT DOGS FOR A MORE PURR-FECT WORLD."
Of course, political parties are not trying to market consumer products; they are trying to market consumable ideas: that is, ideas that may be gulped down in a single bite. For example, American politics was revolutionized by Andrew Jackson and his astute marketing agents in the aftermath of the election of 1828. Jackson had gotten more votes than his rivals, but not enough to win the election outright, forcing the decision to be made by the House of Representatives. Henry Clay, who genuinely feared Jackson as a Napoleon in the making -- (Jackson intensely admired Napoleon, it should be noted) -- decided that it was in the best interest of the country that the utterly un-Napoleonic John Quincy Adams should be the next President. Clay therefore persuaded his followers in the House to vote for Adams against Jackson. Adams later appointed Clay as his Secretary of State, which, at the time, was the traditional route of advancement to the Office of the Presidency, and it is hard to imagine a better choice for the Secretary of State than Clay.
This, however, was not how Jackson saw the matter, and soon there arose a rallying cry, one of those instantly consumable ideas that was brilliantly marketed by Jackson and his coterie: Clay and Adams had made a "corrupt bargain." Clay had offered Adams the Presidency, in return for his appointment as Secretary of State, and, by this bargain, the American people had been deprived of the leader they really wanted, namely, Andrew Jackson himself.
The corrupt bargain charge galvanized the nation. In the next election in 1832, voter turn out, mainly for Jackson, increased dramatically over any of the previous elections, and Jackson won by a landslide. So what if there really was no corrupt bargain -- the slogan had taken hold in the minds of the masses, and it had been adroitly marketed by Jackson's extremely talented political friends The corrupt bargain charge, in short, was a product that "caught on," like the transistor radio or the hula-hoop.
After the Civil War, the Republicans created a product that in many ways came to stand for all similar political products -- it was called the Bloody Shirt, referring to the blood-smeared shirts of the Yankee soldiers who had died during the Civil War. Webster's Third includes the phrase "the bloody shirt" as an entry, and defines it as "a symbol used to inflame to anger or to retaliative action -- used specifically in the U.S. after the Civil War of any means employed to stir up or revive party or sectional animosity especially in the phrase wave the bloody shirt."
In the aftermath of German defeat in the First World War, a freshly laundered bloody shirt emerged that would eventually end by putting Adolf Hitler in a position of absolute power. Germany would have won the war, it was alleged, except for the famous "stab in the back." And who stabbed Germany in the back? Well, Jews, Socialists, and Marxists. Again, note the simplicity of the idea, and how easy it could be grasped. Note, too, how much this one simple idea explained -- it made comprehensible Germany's unexpected defeat as well as the humiliation it suffered in the aftermath of the Treaty of Versailles. Yet, despite this self-evident appeal, this idea also needed considerable marketing skills to sell it to a wide audience; and few men have ever possessed better marketing skills than Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi party's brilliant Minister of Propaganda.
As my three examples should have made clear, it is irrelevant to the marketing of a bloody shirt (or corrupt bargain or stab in the back) whether the idea contained within the product is actually true. What is important is simply that there is a widespread willingness to believe it on the part of the general public. It must make sense to them. But, equally important, it must genuinely cause them to feel outrage and anger, and this is possible only if the issue in question hits a responsive nerve in the collective psyche of the target audience.
Which brings us back to the issue of domestic surveillance.
It may be argued that the team of Gore, Kerry, and Clinton simply lack the marketing genius to convince Americans to become outraged over the charge of domestic spying -- and a good case could be made that Gore and Kerry are singularly devoid of such marketing skills. But my own feeling is that, in this case, it is the product itself that presents the biggest challenge to its own marketability, akin to the challenge posed by the problem of marketing dog-burgers. The public doesn't have the appetite for it, and no political marketing blitz can alter this fact.
There are many who, like myself, can find much to criticize in Bush, but who simply can't buy the idea that Bush has betrayed the American people because he eavesdropped on men who were suspected to be terrorists plotting an attack on our nation. If Bush was perhaps overzealous in his domestic spying, it is precisely this kind of overzealousness that the American public will be found most ready to forgive.
On the other hand, suppose that after 9/11 the United States had been subjected to a series of terrorist attacks, all originating from cells within our own borders. Furthermore, suppose that it was discovered that all of these attacks could have been prevented by domestic surveillance of those who perpetrated the attack. What a bloody shirt that would have made! And the Democrats would have been insane not to wave this particular bloody shirt as violently as possible. "Bush betrayed America because he failed to properly monitor those who were preparing to attack us" would have made a legitimate rallying cry, and it is one that would have instantly resonated in the American psyche.
In short, the attempt to make political hay out of the domestic surveillance issue is doomed to failure. Even worse -- and this is something that the Democrats must reflect upon -- their decision to use this issue to try to stir up resentment against Bush runs the risk of seriously backfiring on them. By appearing to put the civil liberties of suspected terrorists above the national interest, they are in danger of delivering a bloody shirt, made by their own hands, to the Republican Party. "The Democrats are more concerned with the civil rights of foreign terrorists on our soil than they are of another 9/11. So who do you want to look after the welfare of our nation -- them or us?"
Can any Democratic Presidential hopeful in his right mind want to wear that bloody shirt -- or in Senator Clinton's case, bloody blouse? Do any of them wish to take the risk of appearing "soft on terrorism" to an American public still not over the trauma of 9/11?