UK's Guardian likens Kerry to Addams Family’s Lurch
Ever since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, presidential elections have been dominated by Republican expertise in finding a tiny crack - real or imaginary - in a candidate's public facade and expanding that fissure until the whole edifice crumbles. And Bush's formidable chiseller-in-chief, Karl Rove, has barely started tapping.
Must do better
His poll ratings have slumped and each day brings more bad news from Iraq, but George Bush has one big advantage in the coming campaign: a ponderous, uncharismatic challenger with no clear message. In the first of a series of dispatches for G2 on the US election, former New York Times editor Howell Raines warns that John Kerry must find his voice or fade away
Wednesday June 2, 2004
A lot of Democrats are nostalgic these days for the exuberance that Bill Clinton exhibited on the campaign trail and for the clarity of his message: "It's the economy, stupid." With John Kerry, the message so far seems to be: It's the war, sort of, and it's the economy, maybe.
Even against a weakened George Bush, Kerry has to get better as a candidate. The president may be bruised, but anyone tempted to bet against him would be ignoring the Republican party's mastery of what the pundits call "hammer-and-chisel politics", in which an opponent's reputation is destroyed through relentless pounding on one or two simple ideas. Ever since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in 1980, presidential elections have been dominated by Republican expertise in finding a tiny crack - real or imaginary - in a candidate's public facade and expanding that fissure until the whole edifice crumbles. And Bush's formidable chiseller-in-chief, Karl Rove, has barely started tapping.
While Bush's poll figures look sickly to the unschooled eye, his 40% support level does contain some good news for him. It shows that his base of cultural and political conservatives is holding together - so far. White House strategists are betting that leaving Iraq in 30 days - no matter what chaos ensues in that country - will leave them time to revise history between now and election day and, more importantly, get on with the work of destroying Kerry's image.
In recent weeks Kerry has been trying hard to sharpen up his act, but so far the results have not been encouraging. As America's first war-hero candidate since John F Kennedy, he ought to be leading the national discussion on what went wrong in Iraq. But for his current series of speeches on national security issues, he rounded up a series of experienced hair-splitters from the Clinton years - Richard C Holbrooke, James Rubin, Sandy Berger - and they produced a script that would have played very well before the Council on Foreign Relations. The speeches were intended to fire up his campaign, toughen his image and to modify - without disowning - his Senate vote for the war. The problem is that speeches that sound right at the Council don't necessarily work for an electorate schooled to respond to simple messages.
Bush delivered just that in a television-ad blitz in 19 crucial states. The ads depicted Kerry as going wobbly on terrorism because he first voted for the Patriotic Act and then became worried about its authorisation of wire-taps and other infringements of civil liberties. And the nature of the Republican spinners' big chisel was now clear - a depiction of Kerry as the "for/against" candidate who can't make up his mind on any big issue, foreign or domestic.
All of which raises the question of what Kerry needs to do to win in a campaign that's going to become the political equivalent of a street fight. I believe Kerry can do it, but I feel less sure of that now than I did in the primaries. Every time I talk to a reporter who has covered him, new doubts creep in about his ability to connect with voters.
I personally find him easier to talk to than Al Gore, but there's no denying that he's ponderous. And he's pompous in a way that Gore is not. With Gore, you feel that if he could choose, he would have been born poor and cool. Kerry radiates the feeling that he is entitled to his sense of entitlement. Probably that comes from spending too much time with Teddy Kennedy, but it's a problem. The TV camera is an x-ray for picking up attitudinal truths, and Kerry's lantern jaw and Addams Family face somehow reinforce the message that this guy has passed from ponderous to pompous and is so accustomed to privilege that he doesn't have to worry about looking goofy. It's as if Lurch had gone to Choate. Recently, a lot of campaign reporters were writing that Kerry is altering his "populist" message and moving to the centre. If John Kerry was ever a populist, George W Bush is a Rhodes scholar. Here's what Kerry has to face up to and build upon. The difference between him and Bush is that Kerry represents the liberal, charitable wing of the Privilege party and George W represents the conservative, greedy wing of the Privilege party.
With that as a starting point, Kerry then has to figure out how to deliver a message on two key points, one easy and one hard.
The war is the easier one, although Kerry has put himself in a hole by modifying and rationalising his opposition to the Vietnam war. The first and possibly uncorrectable misstep took place when Tim Russert of NBC News showed Kerry a clip of his 1972 Senate testimony to the effect that some of the promoters of the Vietnam war could be viewed as war criminals. Kerry started crawfishing right away. The pity is, he was right. He could have named people starting with Robert MacNamara and McGeorge Bundy, and everybody in the country would have understood the point. That does not, I hasten to add, mean that he should have named those worthies. Here's what he should have done instead of apologising for the extremity of his language when in fact his language was common parlance at that time.
He should have said: "Tim, what you see in that video clip is a young man fresh from the battlefield and incandescent with the horror he saw. I mourned deeply for my comrades who were killed and maimed. I felt moral conflict, as many of our soldiers and sailors did, about the civilian casualties all around us. I felt angry that our national leaders had put us into a war without an exit strategy or a way of defining victory.
"Those are the feelings aroused in me today when I see our young men and women dying in Iraq. I am older and I hope wiser and as the nominee of my party I have an obligation to use less colourful language. But my desire for a government that is both strong and wise in the use of that strength - that calls upon its young for necessary sacrifice, but does not gamble needlessly with their lives - is as deep today as it was then. I have seen the face of battle when it was my duty. That will make me a president who understands the cost of conflict, the need for judgment that balances our military power, the need for honesty with the American people about what we know and don't know about where and when to go after terrorists ..." And so on and so on.
Kerry has yet to learn to do what Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney do when they're in the hot seat. They take over the interview even when they have nothing to say and nothing to sell. There's hardly an American who does not know that George W got into the Air National Guard when others couldn't through his father's political pull, that he got into flight school ahead of others due to his father's political pull, that he was allowed to skip his normal weekend drills and make them up without being punished because of his father's political pull. There's hardly an American who doesn't know that Cheney used graduate-school deferments to beat the draft. If John Kerry, Purple Heart winner, can't take that set of facts and handle Russert as well as Messrs Bush and Cheney do, he's not likely to cause enough defections in the Christian bloc to defeat them.
Now for the hard part of the performance challenge - the economy. Two and a quarter centuries into its history as a nation, America has the most unfair tax system ever and the greatest gap ever between rich and poor. Even a real populist, however, would have trouble taking on these issues frontally. As Al From of the Democratic Leadership Council noted, Americans aren't antagonistic toward the rules that protect the rich because they think that in the great crap-shoot of economic life in America, they might wind up rich themselves. It's a mass delusion, of course, but one that has worked ever since Ronald Reagan got Republicans to start flaunting their wealth instead of apologising for it. Kerry has to understand that when a cure is impossible, the doctor must enter the world of the deluded.
What does this mean in terms of campaign message? It means that he must appeal to the same emotions that attract voters to Republicans - ie greed and the desire to fix the crap-shoot in their favour. That means that instead of talking about "fixing" social security, you talk about building a retirement system that makes middle-class voters believe they will be semi-rich someday. As matters now stand, Kerry has assured the DLC, "I am not a redistributionist Democrat."
That's actually a good start. Using that promise as disinformation, he must now figure out a creative way to become a redistributionist Democrat. As a corporation-bashing populist, I'd like to think he could do that by promising to make every person's retirement as secure as Cheney's investment in Halliburton. But that won't sell with the sun-belt suburbanites. Not being a trained economist like, say, Arthur Laffer, I can't figure out the exact legerdemain that Kerry ought to endorse. But greed will make folks vote for Democrats if it's properly packaged, just as it now makes them vote Republican, and in terms of the kind of voters Kerry must win away from Bush, I think the pot-of-gold retirement strategy is a way to work. Forget a chicken in every pot. It's time for a Winnebago in every driveway.
Surely someone in Kerry's campaign can figure out a way for him to say, "Here's my plan for getting us out of Iraq and defeating terrorism," and "Here's my plan for making sure you're not sick and poor in your old age." And then make him say it over and over again, no matter what question is asked of him. Kerry has to face the fact that even though the incumbent looks like Goofy when he smirks, he's going to win unless Kerry comes up with something to say. To stay "on message", you have to have one.
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