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Clever as they may have been, that and similar tactical strokes were small beer. Yeltsin's problems were too big to be solved simply by delivering what people knew was due them in the first place. Even before their polling confirmed their suspicions, the Americans intuited that Yeltsin would lose and lose badly if the election were a referendum on his stewardship. Most Russians, the polls and focus groups found, perceived Yeltsin as a friend who had betrayed them, a populist who had become imperial. "Stalin had higher positives and lower negatives than Yeltsin," says Dresner. "We actually tested the two in polls and focus groups. More than 60% of the electorate believed Yeltsin was corrupt; more than 65% believed he had wrecked the economy. We were in a deep, deep hole."
In one of the team's early memos, a 10-page document dated March 2, the Americans summed up the situation: "Voters don't approve of the job Yeltsin is doing, don't think things will ever get any better and prefer the Communists' approach. There exists only one very simple strategy for winning: first, becoming the only alternative to the Communists; and second, making the people see that the Communists must be stopped at all costs."
In hindsight, the need for an anticommunist emphasis by the Yeltsin campaign--the need to "go negative"--seems self-evident. But when the Americans first harped on anticommunism as the "only" route to victory, many in the campaign resisted. And despite their status and patronage, the Americans had to fight long and hard before that core strategy was accepted. As Dyachenko told the team after reading the memo, "We have many factions and each has its own view, but most everyone agrees that with communism coming back all over Eastern Europe and with Stalin's reputation rising here, a campaign based on anticommunism is wrong for us."
The argument over the campaign's central message raged all through March. Matters finally came to a head in early April as Yeltsin prepared to give a speech unveiling his campaign program. That address was expected to signal the campaign's substance and tone, and it became a major battleground for control of the campaign. In a nine-point memo dated April 2 that covered content, theme and staging, the team wrote that the "overall goal of the kickoff speech [should be] to demonstrate to the average Russian that Yeltsin understands the suffering the country has been going through...The President will be talking to people in their homes through their TV sets. These average people are the true audience. The people in the hall are props. If this event is successful, it will show that Yeltsin the politician is guided by personal concerns that are in tune with those of most other Russians."
The Americans wanted a diverse audience, "not just middle-aged guys in suits," as the memo put it. They wanted women and students and popular officials like the mayor of Moscow to stand by the President's side. "Too many Russians believe Yeltsin is an isolated man who can't be trusted, a man surrounded by a handful of advisers who have their own agenda," the Americans explained. They also wanted a brief speech that television viewers might actually sit through. "No more than 15 minutes," they advised. And they wanted Yeltsin to enter the hall through a large and boisterous crowd that would mob him.