The Republican Party, to beat John Kerry, settled on a line of attack. And they settled on it totally and completely. So no matter who went on television, no matter when they got there, no matter how little contact they had with the campaign, no matter how incompetent they were as a spokesmen, no matter what the subject was, they knew exactly what to say about John Kerry. He was a flip-flopper. Inconsistent. Unclear, unprincipled, untrustworthy, unpredictable. And by the end of the campaign, they’d repeated it enough to shake the electorate’s faith in Kerry’s ability to lead, no matter what viewers saw in the debate. I’ll never forget walking around RiteAid with my girlfriend’s close friend as she calmly explained to us that John Kerry was a flip-flopper, though she was unable to articulate how, why, or on what. It was one of the more remarkable ontological contortions I’ve seen.
I’d take this a little farther. It’s not just message discipline. The reason Republicans are so good at manipulating the media is that they understand what reporters and news directors and producers and editors really want: a narrative.
The problem with the “flip-flopper” label wasn’t so much that Republicans kept repeating it. It was that it had potential to be self-reinforcing. You could take any number of things that happen in the course of a campaign (answering the same question multiple times, for example) and cram them into that storyline. It’s large. It could contain multitudes.
They do this entirely independent of candidates. Take this whole “liberals are stealing Christmas” canard. It’s horseshit, but it’s very easy to find examples to show that this is a trend (another thing reporters love). So a local story about an overzealous teacher putting up a giant crucifix or telling kids to put down their presents and do their multiplication tables instead becomes a national story, another example of “there they go again.” And another, and another, and another.
And they don’t have to do anything. The wingnuts plant the seeds of the storyline. Reporters look for examples to follow it up. And pretty soon, 24-7, all we’re hearing about is that Democrats are indecisive, and want to take your Christmas trees.