Until recently, the Republican campaign for president was conducted on a remarkably high level, focusing almost entirely on issues like taxes, immigration, social questions, and war. But Iowans are set to hold their caucuses in less than six weeks, and the campaign has entered a new phase. The big issues will still dominate, but the last weeks of the campaign will bring us steadily escalating oppo wars — battles in which candidates attack their opponents’ character as well as positions.
But the war this time around might be different from the past. “The oppo is all online now,” one veteran of several campaigns told me recently. “There’s no hiding it anymore. We used to dig all this stuff up, and now it’s on the Net.” That means negative material has gotten into the public sphere, and perhaps been absorbed, earlier than in the past. And that means in coming weeks the news will be dominated less by new and startling revelations than by the campaigns’ attempts to shape publicly available information about their opponents into narratives that voters can easily grasp.
The biggest fight, at least at the moment, is between Mitt Romney, leading in the polls in Iowa and New Hampshire, and Rudy Giuliani, leading in the polls nationally. Over the Thanksgiving weekend, open warfare broke out between both sides, and in the coming weeks, we’ll likely see the campaigns working hard to pin stories on the other in a battle that might be called the The Cronyism Narrative vs. The Authenticity Narrative.
“The narrative is cronyism,” a member of the Romney camp told me over the weekend, speaking of Giuliani. “He has a lot of these people who really have no other existence than being his guy. You can run a city that way. You can’t run a government that way. You can’t say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna put my 24 year-old driver in charge of the Treasury Department.’“
The “24 year-old” part is a bit of an exaggeration, but the Romney camper is referring to Bernard Kerik, Giuliani’s former driver and now-indicted close aide. And the Romney camp is suggesting that Kerik — or, more importantly, the narrative that he represents — will make Giuliani unelectable next November. “The Kerik issue has emerged as a narrative that seems to be the one dominant issue that the Giuliani campaign has to deal with,” another member of the Romney circle told me. “It seems to distract the campaign, and people don’t have a lot of confidence that someone who is distracted by that issue can make the clear contrast in November between the candidate and the Democratic opponent.”
Not long after the two Romney campers spoke those words, the candidate himself made precisely the same point publicly, saying in New Hampshire that Giuliani is “in the same position as Hillary Clinton” on, among other things, the “ethical history of his administration.”
The Romney campaign is big and carefully organized; it has undoubtedly done its homework on Giuliani. But most of the material it needs to attack Giuliani is already in the public domain. For one thing, staffers have closely read Giuliani’s book, Leadership, in which the former New York mayor describes his inner circle and leadership style. “You look at his book, and you look at the stuff about Bernie, and the picture draws itself,” the first Romney camper told me.
Of course, the time might come when the campaign will need to help the picture draw itself. But at the moment, there’s no need for Romney to push too hard. Giuliani has many enemies — New York Democrats, disaffected former aides, union leaders — who are willing to help. “This is actually media-driven,” the second Romney camper told me, and indeed, the campaign can point to stories like one that appeared Saturday in the Washington Post, “Giuliani’s Critics Point to Cronyism; Appointments While Mayor Are Said to Tarnish His Leadership Credentials,” which relied on former Giuliani appointees to “describe a pattern in which capable appointees either quit or were pushed out, leaving the top levels of the Giuliani administration increasingly populated by friends and close associates.”
That’s the Cronyism Narrative. Over the weekend, the Giuliani tried, somewhat weakly, to establish a cronyism narrative of its own for Romney. “If I’m in the Romney camp,” a Giuliani aide told me, “the last thing I want to do is talk about appointing people in any way, shape, or form, because the first thing that’s going to be brought up is Judge Tuttman. (The Giuliani camper was referring to a Massachusetts judge, appointed by Romney, who released a killer from prison — after he had served his sentence, but against the recommendations of prosecutors — only to see him kill again.)
But Romney’s appointment of one judge is not terribly similar to Giuliani’s close relationship with Kerik, and it’s unlikely Giuliani will be get much mileage out of that case. Instead, the richer vein for Giuliani will be what the Giuliani camper called “the whole authenticity narrative,” which he defined as “Campaign Trail Mitt vs. Governor Mitt.” And, sure enough, at about the same time the staffer was making that case with me, Giuliani himself was letting go with an extended attack on Romney in an interview with the Washington Post, based in part on the authenticity narrative. “When you look back on Romney’s governorship of Massachusetts,” Giuliani told the paper, “there’s only one accomplishment [the state’s health care plan], and he’s running away from that.”
In a way similar to what Giuliani’s critics are doing with The Cronyism Narrative, Romney’s critics — angry former allies in Massachusetts pro-choice circles, skeptical pro-lifers today — will supply material for attacks based on The Authenticity Narrative. With caucuses and primaries approaching fast, it’s what’s in store for voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and beyond.