October 02, 2004

Getting it wrong

Mark's post this morning about word counts from the Thursday presidential debate initially made me wonder how the word "wrong" escaped Mark's list, given my impression that Bush repeated the phrase "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time", like, a hundred times. So I did my own search of the transcript (using the Find function in my browser and counting them off by hand; I'm less sophisticated than Mark in this regard and probably a hundred others) and found the reason: Kerry used the word "wrong" 11 times to Bush's 26, which means the ratio was almost 2.5 to 1 -- way too low to make Mark's list.

21 of Bush's 26 uses of the word "wrong" (81%) were in the context of the "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" phrase he repeated 7 times during the debate (sometimes with "at the" instead of the commas, sometimes with "wrong place" and "wrong time" reversed, etc.). Clearly, the Bush team thought it would be a great idea for him to make repeated reference to Kerry's statement in early September that the invasion of Iraq was "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" and to contrast this with the fact that Kerry "voted to authorize the use of force", that Kerry and Bush made this decision based on "the same intelligence", and so on. You know, the flip-flop thing. The mixed message/signal thing.

But was this strategy effective? According to George Lakoff, simply saying a word or phrase, whether you're just quoting it or even flat-out denying it, does a good job of reinforcing the word or phrase itself -- perhaps a better job than whatever it is that you're really trying to communicate. As Lakoff put it in his recent interview on NOW with Bill Moyers: "It's like Richard Nixon getting up there and saying, 'I am not a crook,' and people think of him as a crook."

I wonder: how many viewers of the debate now have more significant doubts about the war in Iraq given these 7 repetitions of the relevant phrase?

  1. First of all, what my opponent wants you to forget is that he voted to authorize the use of force and now says it's the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place.
  2. I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place.
  3. My opponent says help is on the way, but what kind of message does it say to our troops in harm's way, "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time"?
  4. So what's the message going to be: "Please join us in Iraq. We're a grand diversion. Join us for a war that is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time?"
  5. They're not going to follow somebody who says, "This is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time."
  6. They're not going to follow somebody who says this is the wrong war at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  7. And if I were to ever say, "This is the wrong war at the wrong time at the wrong place," the troops would wonder, how can I follow this guy?

These quotes are listed here in their order of appearance in the transcript. Notice how the very first one sends the apparently intended message of the Bush camp pretty strongly, but each subsequent one seems weaker than the last. By the last one, I'm thinking: Bush just can't admit he was wrong, and he's willing to sacrifice more American lives just so that he doesn't have to admit that he was wrong.

It helps that this thought in my head is basically the same message that Kerry was hammering home in one way or another in all of his 11 uses of the word "wrong":

  1. I'll never give a veto to any country over our security. But I also know how to lead those alliances. This president has left them in shatters across the globe, and we're now 90 percent of the casualties in Iraq and 90 percent of the costs. I think that's wrong, and I think we can do better.
  2. The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too. That's wrong.
  3. I've met kids in Ohio, parents in Wisconsin places, Iowa, where they're going out on the Internet to get the state-of-the-art body gear to send to their kids. Some of them got them for a birthday present. I think that's wrong.
  4. I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right.
  5. When I came back from that war I saw that it was wrong.
  6. There was a right way to disarm him and a wrong way.
  7. And the president chose the wrong way.
  8. Now, if you break it, you made a mistake. It's the wrong thing to do. But you own it. And then you've got to fix it and do something with it.
  9. And you have to do that by beginning to not back off of the Fallujahs and other places, and send the wrong message to the terrorists.
  10. I'm interested in working with our nations and do a lot of it. But I'm not going to make decisions that I think are wrong for America.
  11. But this issue of certainty. It's one thing to be certain, but you can be certain and be wrong.

The first 2 of Bush's 5 other uses of "wrong" were, in my opinion, seriously off-message by comparison:

  1. I won't hold it against him that he went to Yale. There's nothing wrong with that.
  2. My opponent is for joining the International Criminal Court. I just think trying to be popular, kind of, in the global sense, if it's not in our best interest makes no sense. I'm interested in working with our nations and do a lot of it. But I'm not going to make decisions that I think are wrong for America.

The last 3, one right after the other, appear to be back on track:

  1. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops.
  2. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies.
  3. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens.

Debate-viewing swing voters, I think, should be having serious doubts about a second Bush term. But that's already been said.

[ Comments? ]

Posted by Eric Bakovic at October 2, 2004 02:56 PM