France: Sarkozy, une stratégie électorale a la Bush 2004
Sarkozy channeling G. W. Bush and taking a page from his 2004 playbook
The campaign for the 2012 French presidential election will be officially launched this evening during the hour-long interview of Nicolas Sarkozy on France2 and TF1. During this intervention, the incumbent president will present the main theme of his campaign, which will be articulated as follows: “I am the president; I brought Europe back from the edge of the cliff; don’t you gamble with the future of France by changing an experienced and tough leader for a novice and inexperienced socialist candidate like François Hollande.” Yes, you read it right. That’s Sarkozy’s strategy. It is actually the only strategy that might give an edge to Sarkozy to win his reelection bid.
Of course, the incumbent president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will not say this word for word, but this will be the base upon which he will build his reelection campaign. However, this theme is hardly new. It reminds me of the 2004 successful reelection campaign of G.W. Bush, which limited the choice before the voters to a binary one: a safe choice versus a risky one. During that campaign, Bush’s strategy was to run as the experienced, battle-hardened, steady-handed leader and the captain who navigated the treacherous waters and brought Ship America to a safe harbor in these dire times. More importantly, he attacked mercilessly and painted emphatically his opponent, Senator John Kerry (D), as an undecided, flip-flopper man who cannot be trusted to lead America in these trouble times. In one sentence, Bush’s campaign reelection strategy was: we don’t change a rider in the middle of the race and we don’t change a leader in the middle of a war. For this strategy to work, one needs and must destroy the credibility and the strongest assets of his opponent and run as far as away possible from his own record.
So, why was Bush successful in using this strategy? Could it have been beaten? And what can François Hollande learn from Bush v. Kerry 2004 to counter-attack Sarkozy’s reelection strategy successfully?
It is useless to recount the entire 2004 presidential campaign, but it is useful to highlight a few strategic and fatal errors that Kerry’s camp made during that campaign. First, Kerry ran a very successful primary campaign, in which he presented himself as a powerful trustworthy center-left candidate. However, after the primaries were over and during the doldrums of summer 2004, the Kerry campaign was caught flat-footed. It lacked a strategy for the general election; it lacked a powerful spokesman; it lacked a clear and concise message, and was basically absent from the air during the whole summer. From the time of the last primary election to the time of the democratic convention, the field was wide open for the Bush campaign. It is during that time that the Bush team decided to work on candidate Kerry. Body punch after body punch, they effectively left him for dead by August.
They painted and depicted Kerry as weak on national security, untrustworthy, a liar, and a flip-flopper. The Bush campaign attacked Kerry’s strongest assets. After all, Kerry volunteered to go to Vietnam and did two tours, earned several medals for his courage and bravery on the battlefield, was injured, and so forth. How can they attack him on that front while Bush is a draft-dodger you may ask? This is exactly why this strategy was successful. By destroying your opponent’s strongest assets, you basically destroy him entirely. Moreover, all of Kerry’s assets of bravery, war record and senatorial leadership were not really well-known by most Americans. Kerry was still the Democratic candidate and known only to the base of his party. For most, he was an obscure senator from Massachusetts. He had not yet been introduced to most voters at the time. That was supposed to be done during the summer, reinforced during the convention, and amplified during the general election. Nevertheless, before Kerry even opened his mouth, he had already been negatively framed by the Bush campaign. Moreover, at a very critical time of the campaign when the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth folks attacked Kerry’s war record, he did not respond in a timely manner. His campaign for some reasons (that I still don’t understand) rolled-over and played dead for a couple of weeks during which the Swift Boat folks called Kerry a liar and a coward and ran negative ad after negative ad in key battleground states. They attacked the candidate’s credibility and manhood without any answer from the candidate himself. That image of a weak liar not-so credible and untrustworthy man dominated any other frame presented by the Kerry campaign. When the democratic candidate campaign decided to react and counter-attach, it was already too late, and the more Kerry fought that frame, the more he appeared to reinforce it. The harm was done and Kerry was dead in the water.
By destroying Kerry’s strongest assets, Bush was able to have a fairly empty field and frame his candidacy in the terms that suited him the most. Since Bush couldn’t run on any domestic economic or social accomplishments (anemic economic growth, poor job creation record, controversial education reforms, and so on), he chose to run on foreign policy, strong leadership, national unity, and security. He was successful in doing so because he almost ran unopposed on these themes since his opponent’s credibility had been rendered questionable to say the least.
This is exactly what Sarkozy will do during the up coming months. This is exactly what Sarkozy’s reelection campaign strategy will look like. He cannot run on domestic issues. He has one of the worst record in job creation of the fifth republic; he has introduced highly controversial reforms that have not yielded any results (social security reform, retirement reform, education and so forth); he has a poor record on immigration control; he has a poor record on the economy and economic growth; and he has a poor record on security. During his tenure, deficit spending went through the roof and the overall charge of the national debt has tremendously increased. So what else out there is left to run on? In two words: Leadership, and national unity.
Tonight on France2 and TF1, Sarkozy will “re-introduce” himself to the French voters as the “decider”. He will paint himself as this strong leader who does not shy away form or hesitate in making tough decisions to protect France even if he has to put his political capital in jeopardy. He will try to put himself above the day-to-day petty politics and partisan squabbling because he is looking for the interest of the nation. He will probably claim that he saved the euro from a total collapse and resolved the crisis of the European debt by himself. Basically, he is the French Superman. In doing so, the subliminal message is that his opponent, François Hollande, is not tough, does not have what it takes to be a leader in these very trouble times, and cannot be trusted with the future of France.
Can Sarkozy get away with it? Can this strategy be successful? Yes, absolutely it can be successful if the Socialist Party and François Hollande roll-over and play dead. This is the time for the PS and for Hollande to go on the offensive. He cannot afford to play defense on the theme of leadership. As the old saying goes, offense is the best defense; this saying is truer in politics than in sports. If Hollande allowed Sarkozy to capture the debate and dictate the tempo and the themes upon which the campaign would be fought, the socialist candidate would lose. Period. There is no doubt about this. Moreover, if Hollande let’s Sarkozy frame him as a weak, divisive, and an untrustworthy leader, Hollande would lose. Electoral politics is mostly a game of perception and expectation, and if you let the voters see you as weak, you might as well pack up and go home.
So, the ball now is in the PS’ and François Hollande’s court. They need to sharpen their attacks, raise doubt and poke holes in Sarkozy’s presentation/argument as the savor of the euro and as the figure that units France in these dire times. Hollande needs and must remind the French voters that Sarkozy is extremely liberal who favors banks and financial lobbies above people’s job security and welfare, and attack his leadership qualities as chaotic and divisive. The French voters already think that Sarkozy has a catastrophic leadership style. He is extremely unpopular already. For the last 3 years, every poll confirmed that a majority of French voters disapprove of Sarkozy’s leadership style, his policies, and even dislike him as a person. So, as the psychologists would say, the voters have been primed and all they need is a frame. That is Hollande’s job–i.e., to frame Sarkozy for the voters.
Basically, Sarkozy has nothing to lose here. He will attack like a mad dog on crack. Therefore, Hollande needs to attack first and harmer the theme of failed policies and poor leadership skills repeatedly until he negates any gains that Sarkozy might make over the next two weeks. The strategy for Hollande is very simple really: force Sarkozy to run on his record and not away from it. If he does that successfully, the presidency is his. Otherwise, 5 more years of Sarkozy.