You know things are getting desperate when your team starts giving up six months early. Desperate times may call for desperate measures, so if I was a skullduggerous bastard as Matt McCarten is alleged to be, I would consider ‘swiftboating‘ John Key and the MPs close to him.
For those who don’t know, swiftboating is when an officially unaligned political group deliberately smears a politician in order to undermine their greatest strength. The idea is that the smear damages your opponent, and the unaffiliated group gets the blowback. Effectively, it is striking hard and dirty at an opponents strengths, rather than their weaknesses. The term comes from the 2004 Bush vs. Kerry election, where the war hero Kerry ran against the draft-dodging Bush. An outside group viciously and effectively attacked Kerry’s war record. The Greens have already dabbled with a similar tactic by trialing #Natsbadwithmoney on twitter last week.
In this post I’ll outline why a skulldeggerous bastard might consider swiftboating. I’ll start with the purpose of swiftboating Key et al., then outline some possible tactics, and conclude with some of the drawbacks.
The purpose here would be to attack Key’s greatest strength and destroy the credibility of National’s main election plank. Since the Nats have put most of their eggs in Key’s basket, it makes sense to break the basket. Swiftboating is particularly appropriate here as Cunliffe’s weakness is Key’s strength- likeability.
The principles underpinning this are simple- when an opponents strength is very strong, attack that rather than their weakness. I find it helpful to think in terms of ‘chains’ and ‘sails’. Chains are only as strong as their weakest link- if you break the weakest link, you break the chain. Sails are only as effective as the mast that holds them- if you want catastrophic damage, break the mast. National are in the latter category- damaging the sail is insufficient because the mast (Key) still stands. Labour are more like a chain- almost any scandal seems to hurt them as a whole.
The key factor here is whether or not there is a wide disparity between a party’s strengths and weaknesses. In National’s case, Key is so strong that none of the stink from any of National’s mistakes can touch him, with the exception of a select few (Judith Collins being one).
This is why I think National won in 2011 despite widespread opposition to asset sales. People cared about asset sales, but National’s strength (Key) outweighed their weakness (asset sales). This is still the case. So if I was a skulldeggerous, I would be thinking that it’s time to ‘break the mast’ and go after Key and the MPs closest to him. But how?
It’s hard to talk tactics when I don’t have stats on Key’s favourable traits, but I’ll proceed anyway.
For the sake of argument, I’ll use my own views on Key. Basically, I think Key’s strength is that he comes across as an authentic, down-to-earth, nice guy. I would be thinking that each of these attributes needs to be destroyed by any means possible.
If he is considered authentic, a dubious outside group needs to undermine this by making plausible claims of inauthenticity. ‘Down-to-earth’ requires a claim that screams ‘let them eat cake’, like Mitt Romney’s car elevator. For ‘nice’, there is real potential. If I was skulldeggerous, I would be looking for stories that can be spun into ‘John Key fired my Mum’ (more vicious smears are easy to think of, but I won’t list them).
Also, any attack on MPs close to Key could have a similar effect. There are few MPs close enough to taint him. But Key’s relatively firm line with Judith Collins last week showed how keen he was to isolate her scandal.
But who would these outside groups be? I think bloggers are an excellent option, although a skulldeggerous bastard would have to be careful they are not directly linked to Left parties. The blowback of the smear has to be restricted to the swiftboaters themselves and not bleed into the party.
When should these attacks take place? Obviously closer to the election, so they’re still fresh, and away from weekends or big games. But more specifically, I would conduct coordinated smears in the late afternoon. By that time the swiftboaters would have an idea of what their competition will be for the 6 o’clock news. Late afternoon will give the journalists time to put an item together, and give National very little time to convincingly refute the story. Hopefully some of the mud will stick, and the blowback will be contained to swiftboaters. This latter part will require some pretty stern denunciations from Labour along the lines of ‘there is no place for this kind of politics in New Zealand’.
Obviously the most effective story would be a true one, but a story that is at least arguable would suffice. Selection of a story should be such that if it completely backfires, it still reminds the audience of something unpleasant about Key, such as the fact that he was a merchant banker who got rich while firing lots of people.
A weak swiftboat will have limited impact, but also limited blowback, and could still erode Key’s reputation. Furthermore, the refutation of the accusation will get less media time than the accusation itself. A strong swiftboat has high impact potential but a lot of blowback, and will give greater prominence to the refutation.
If I was skulldeggerous, I would see the obvious drawback as the possibility that blowback could taint Labour, or that the public could find the attacks so abhorrent that they rally to Key. A big issue would be potential leaks. I wouldn’t want to end up looking like Don Brash with the Exclusive Brethren. I’m not saying swiftboating will be the best option, or that it should be adopted. It will have to be considered on its strengths and weaknesses, like any strategy.
Obviously, assessing this strategy is difficult because of the differences between here and the United States. In the original swiftboat attack, the attackers represented an incumbent with an established reputation, not a challenger who is vulnerable to shifts in narrative. And, of course, the scale and stakes of US politics is vastly larger than ours.
Luckily I’m not a skullduggerous bastard. Swiftboating is morally reprehensible and a terrible addition to our politics. But it is an interesting thought experiment, and I think striking National where it is strongest is a good strategy. People are voting for Key, not National. National can screw up over and again, but as long as Key remains popular, National remain popular.