Sunday, September 12, 2004

Since the Presidential campaign has sadly moved from issues to tactics, I wanted to devote this week’s post to Kerry’s campaign strategy or lack thereof.


An (Un)Swift Boat Drifting Off Course?

Has John Kerry’s campaign lost its focus? The recent poll numbers and critical news stories are warning signs, but certainly not a death knell for Senator Kerry’s candidacy. Anyone who has watched cable news knows that stories often need to be manufactured to fill news cycles, so even when the Presidential campaign is in cruise control, pointed analysis and commentary still needs to be done. The Republicans had a good convention simply because they accomplished what they had set out to do. Despite considerable irony, moderate GOPers like Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, came together to present a kinder, gentler, Republican party and each of them gave rousing endorsements for the President. Zell Miller was intense, perhaps half way to maniacal, but the fallout of his speech is still unclear. Perhaps the best thing about the GOP convention was the timing. By cornering the end of the summer, right before the traditional start of the modern Presidential campaign (Labor Day), the Republicans entered the home stretch with considerable momentum, while many Americans have probably already forgotten who Barak Obama is.

On the Kerry side, those of us on the outside of the campaign can only read the newspaper for insights on his mood and his strategy. Reading the New York Times, I sometimes wonder whether the Times reports the news or makes the news when it comes to the Kerry campaign. In any case, articles started popping up all over the paper about Kerry being frustrated with the muddled message of his campaign and their painfully slow response to the Swift Boat ads. Rumors were abound about a large campaign shakeout. Of course, Kerry being Kerry, he couldn’t really fire anyone. Instead, he tapped a bunch of old Clinton aides, Paul Begala, James Carville, and Joe Lockhart, to revive his campaign. Perhaps they will work in some parallel universe alongside the old Kerry team, which is actually Ted Kennedy’s old crew, led by Mary Beth Cahill. While I am sure control rights have been clearly and logically delegated between the two camps (this sentence is so drenched in sarcasm, its unhealthy), who wants to make a bet that these two sides will not get into a turf war by sometime in late September? Clinton’s people seem to have a competing set of incentives, being more loyal to their old boss (and maybe a certain junior senator from New York), then the candidate himself. The “Clintonistas” might have some good ideas though. They will undoubtedly revive the “war room” rapid response center that Kerry so desperately needed to counter the Swift Boat ads but did not have. It is almost laughable (if it were not so pathetic) that Kerry’s camp cannot effectively rebuke charges that are patently false, while the Bush campaign can quash stories that are based on factual evidence. While it may be chic to blame the media, the New York Times and Washington Post have been trying their best. I read their headlines everyday. But they cannot do all of Kerry’s work for him. Maybe, he should have hired Fox News instead.

Kerry has hammered home the fact that he is a Vietnam veteran to shore up Democrats’ traditional weakness on national security. That makes good sense. The Bush people battled back, questioning his service in a despicable but entirely predictable manner, and now much of Kerry’s gains have been eroded on relevant poll questions. For the Kerry campaign not to respond immediately to the Swift Boat lies, apparently because they could not imagine how a small ad buy with flimsy charges could resonate so effectively, is a sign of poorly functioning organization that does not grasp the power of right wing radio, websites, and news organizations.

On the other side, with very few accomplishments to run on, the Bush campaign is not plagued by in fighting (I think they make aides sign loyalty oaths too) and is relentlessly on message. Even more brilliant is Bush’s rumored attempt to avoid the 2nd scheduled debate, which was supposed to be a town hall format with “real” people selected by the Gallup organization. Since Bush’s team knows that he must avoid any and all unscripted encounters between now and the election, they are working hard to have only two debates which promise to be boring and uneventful. They are assiduously avoiding Bush Sr. campaign mistakes. It was the town hall debate where he infamously looked at his watch and signaled that he was bored and unengaged. Now Kerry could very reasonably make the point that Bush is scared to face questions from the same folks he claims to represent, and he will try. But the Bush spin machine will produce some nonsense about 2 debates being enough for the American people to decide, which Fox News will dutifully run with, while the editorial page of the New York Times goes ballistic. And the poll numbers won’t move a point.

Anti-Bush sentiment will get Kerry 45 percent of the vote, but his personality and charisma will have to carry him the rest of the way. While we can joke that this combination might net him 43 percent or so, the sad fact is that while voters seem to agree with Democrats on the major domestic issues, many of them still support Bush. Kerry will no doubt emphasize health care and the economy over the next 2 months, while ratcheting up his criticism up Iraq and the War on Terror. He has already incorporated some of Howard Dean’s lines, but unfortunately not his passion. Kerry’s position on Iraq is actually well informed, but too nuanced to be properly contrasted with Bush’s cartoonish view of the world. As a result, he looks like he is trying to have it both ways. Unfortunately, if he moves into Dr. Dean territory, he may alienate swing voters and feed into the perception that Democrats are soft. It’s a tough position that only President Clinton could finesse.

While I might seem harsh on Kerry, he is known to be a tremendous finisher, a reputation well earned against Bill Weld in 1996 and in Iowa this time around. He has it in him to win the race. Kerry is also an experienced, intelligent, and gifted politician. He just needs to make the tough decisions about staffing and message that he has not made thus far. I stand by my earlier prediction of a Bush victory but am holding out for a Kerry surge. For Kerry to win, he needs to utilize the Clinton people without alienating his own staff. Carville, Begala, and Stan Greenberg know how to win, while Kerry’s closest strategist Bob Shrum is 0 for 7 in Presidential races. Kerry should also utilize his running mate more effectively. John Edwards has been getting such little attention that he might as well be at an undisclosed location. Maybe he got lost in the “other America” and can’t find his way back. Edwards is the one personality in this race that can change votes with a single stump speech. He needs to set up permanent residence in the critical swing states. Finally, Kerry needs to tie together his disparate critiques of Bush into one powerful message. By tying together Bush’s irresponsible tax cuts, radical regulatory reforms, shoddy post-war planning in Iraq and Afghanistan, etc. Kerry needs to make the case that Bush is not fit to serve as commander in chief for another 4 years. If Kerry is not aggressive enough, Bush will simply cruise through the debates towards reelection. Ironically, the one man who could help Kerry make the case for Democratic policies most effectively, lies in a hospital room in New York City, recovering from heart surgery. President Clinton, biting his lip and pointing his finger, surely remembering how under-utilized he was four years ago, is likely saying: “You should have used me when you had the chance. See you in 2008.”

R.C.

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