Way back in the spring of this year, after John Kerry had sewn up the nomination, there were a few weeks where Kerry did little public campaigning and essentially allowed the news cycle to campaign for him: Iraq was an absolute mess, the 9-11 commission was exposing disturbing negligence at the highest levels of government and the Abu Graib prison photos were shredding the credibility of the "human rights" justification for the war. I remember at the time a lot of friends saying "Why doesn't Kerry pound Bush on this stuff? Where is he?" It's safe to say that things are very different right now, and I, for one, am kind of pining for the good old days. The problem is that since we have entered full-tilt campaign mode, the campaign itself has knocked a lot of worthy pieces of news off the front page. Bush's record is so abjectly terrible, such a demonstrable disaster that shifting the emphasis away from what is happening in the country and the world will always redound to his benefit. But the news hasn't gotten any better in the last month and a half. Let's review: 1) Only 32,000 new jobs were added in July, 270,000 less than White House had once predicted. 2) Oil is now approaching $50 a barrel, and global production is near capacity. While the price of oil isn't directly the administration's fault, having absolutely no energy policy to speak of is. 3) Construction material costs have skyrocketed, adding thousands of dollars to the price of a new home. 4) Moqtada al-Sadr continues to threaten all-out insurgency in Iraq, and repeated attacks on the city by American forces are undermining the thin veil of "soveriengty" laid over the new government. 5) The first convention in Iraq to select the body that will govern elections disintegrated into chaos. 6) The Pentagon can't account for billions of dollars in Iraq "reconstruction" money. 7) American soldiers and Iraqis continued to die in Iraq. 8) New overtime rules put into effect by the Labor Department (enacted through administrative fiat as opposed to legislation) will deny time-and-a-half pay to 6 million workers. I could go on and on, but the point is that all of this is being obscured by the fact that there is a campaign happening and the press naturally is focusing the bulk of their energies on covering it. The only way these issues will get any play at all is if the Kerry campaign itself hammers on them, or even better, if the DNC rolls out a new series of ads that focus on them. (For some reason, everyone loves to cover ads.) Hopefully that starts today with a noon press conference about the new overtime rules. I haven't seen any polling data about the new overtime rules, but my instinct is that it could be a potentially huge problem for Bush. Ask any cop, firefighter, municipal worker, or legal secretary and they will tell you how important overtime is to keeping their heads above water financially. If I were Kerry/Edwards, I'd hammer this. Try to get it to drive the news cycle for the next week. One final note about how this campaign is developing. Naomi Klein has a quote in The Corporation where she says that branding is not a way of selling a product, but rather the brand is the product. I think this is an excellent insight. In the beginning, people probably bought Starbucks coffee because it was strong and delicious, but now they buy the coffee because it comes from Starbucks. Effective branding separates the value of the brand from the value of what's actually being sold, so that consumers begin to purchase the brand values instead of the product. This, to me, sums up the Bush campaign strategy. The product itself is so shitty, that they have decided instead to focus on the Bush brand: strong, compassionate, steady, pious, etc… The Kerry campaign has two options, which are to a certain extent mutually exclusive: attack the brand, or keep people focused on the product.
Christopher Hayes is the host of MSNBC’s All In with Chris Hayes. He is an editor at large at the Nation and a former senior editor of In These Times.