Tales from the Rove playbook

From today’s Crikey:

Maybe Australian journos don’t spend too much time following American politics. For reasons which are completely obscure, there was a bit of a “shock horror!” beat up about American pollsters advising the Labor Party to use the phrase “working families” and Joe Hockey tried to make much of the fact that the ACTU had a campaign strategy manual earlier in the year. It’s hard to figure out why these scintillating revelations were meant to do some damage, but they were both obligingly reported in the broadsheets.

In what’s otherwise a tightly argued and compelling story in yesterday’s Age, Jason Koutsoukis writes about John Howard’s attempts at damage control over the sorry/apology distinction and asks:

Who was Howard trying to con? The only person playing with semantics was Howard. With himself.

Well, precisely.

Anyone who’s made a study of the Karl Rove playbook would know what Howard was up to. It was the same technique he used a couple of weeks ago when he successfully invented a “Garrett gaffe” that never really happened on climate change negotiations, and obfuscated the issue so much that apparently a bit of Labor’s lead on the issue dissipated.

And it’s the same manoeuvre being used to try to turn around angst about interest rates and WorkChoices. WorkChoices creating a climate of job insecurity? Claim that its abolition and the reign of the scary union bosses would see you tossed out of your job.

Koutsoukis, and many other commenters, including Laura Tingle on Lateline last Friday, have correctly argued that the Coalition’s narrative is crazily complex and internally incoherent. I’ve made the same point myself.

But what they appear to be missing is that in Rove world, this is not supposed to matter. If your opponent has a line that cuts through, you turn it right around and accuse them of doing exactly what you’re being accused of. The idea is that most voters won’t be paying much attention and won’t bother to look beyond the soundbites for the facts. With any luck, your soundbite might be the only one they hear. But even if it’s not, they’ll end up both confused and annoyed, which supposedly cancels out any advantage that might accrue to the other side.

In the States, it’s supposed to stop soft voters from voting at all. Whether or not it works in an environment of compulsory voting is another matter. But in the absence of a compelling narrative arc for the Coalition’s campaign, this scattershot negativity is designed to reinforce doubts about Rudd and send voters scuttling back to the devil they know. It will probably only work to improve the Coalition vote a smidgeon in the marginals, but it would be wrong to think that the Liberal strategists don’t know what they’re up to, as many commentators seem to have assumed.

John Howard is said to be a big reader of history and biographies. I don’t know if he’s ever read David Malouf’s celebrated novel Johnno. Malouf may have provided an epitaph for this campaign:

Maybe, in the end, even the lies we tell define us. And better, some of them, than our most earnest attempts at the truth.

Posted in federal election '07, Howardia
8 comments on “Tales from the Rove playbook
  1. gandhi says:

    If your opponent has a line that cuts through, you turn it right around and accuse them of doing exactly what you’re being accused of.

    Ironically – sign of the times? – you could turn this argument against Rudd as well. What if both Rudd and Howard are playing from the Rove Play Book?

    Then we get a “Seinfeld election”. But whose fault is that?

    Surely, ultimately, it comes down to all the voters who are not paying attention.

    Compulsory voting or not, if people just don’t give a shit, they get the government they deserve.

  2. tigtog says:

    Obviously, what the political advisors are doing is, as has oft been noted, fighting the last election as much as this one, in that they are attempting to do what they think succeeded last time all over again (and incorporating what they think succeeded in the US last time as well). So first off, there is the assumption that they have correctly identified the winning approach from the last election.

    Secondly, last election’s winning approach obviously has limits if the zeitgeist of the electorate has changed. What worked last time may be the exact opposite of what the voters are interested in this time, which the advisers and analysers will only know (or think that they know) once they do the forensic rake through the entrails of this election.

  3. Andrew says:

    “The idea is that most voters won’t be paying much attention and won’t bother to look beyond the soundbites for the facts.”

    This works, but only for a while – electoral tactics based on deceit rather than actual good governance inevitably have declining effectiveness over time.

    Relying on voters’ inattentiveness works until the facts become inescapable – see US elections, 2006, paying special attention to Iraq. The tactic only has to be noticed by a few people every time it’s used, and once someone has seen it in action they’ll spot it every time thereafter. Same goes for wedging – once a person falls on the wrong side of the wedge they’ll be much more reluctant to fall for it next time. Eventually you run out of a wedgable majority.

  4. mbahnisch says:


  5. Supun says:

    I got this confused with Rove McManus, and his upcoming interview with Kevin Rudd this Sunday. I mean, there’s only one question everyone in Australia wants the answer to.

  6. peterc says:

    The spin on the ALP’s environment policy certainly worked for a couple of undecided voters that 4 Corners were following. They had the impression that Rudd had backflipped on Kyoto and hence thought he was a weak leader.

  7. kimberella says:

    Yep, and they’re the sort of voters this stuff is pitched to. Whether or not they’ll decide the election, as 4 Corners claims, is another matter entirely. It may well be that sufficient voters in Lindsay have already made their minds up and thus the decision of the undecideds will not be relevant if the lead is already big enough.

  8. Lomandra says:

    Mark, I was thinking about your words here watching 4 Corners last night.

    One couple in particular (you know the ones I mean. The ones with brains the size of plankton) were perfect evidence of your thesis. Completely ignorant of Labor’s current policies and of history, but smugly sure of what Labor is planning.

    Ugh. If only such dills were a tiny minority!

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