Jewish World Review Sept. 23, 2004 / 8 Tishrei, 5765
Kerry's confused campaign
The defects in Sen. John Kerry's campaign do not all stem from a candidate and advisers who don't know where they are going. A large part of the most directionless challenge to an incumbency in recent decades comes from the fundamental disagreement that Kerry voters have among themselves.
With his constituency almost evenly divided between hawks and doves, Kerry doesn't know what to say or which way to turn. Since the only common denominator of his backers is their animosity toward Bush, the Massachusetts Democrat is stuck waging a negative campaign that wears out his welcome with swing voters.
This problem largely stems from the fact that Kerry's candidacy came of age in March and April, the worst months for Bush's war in Iraq. With maximum American casualties during the horrific months of early spring, Kerry sought to cast himself as having been misled into backing the war and disappointed in its progress.
But all that unites his supporters is their agreement with that negative critique of the past. As for the future, they are split down the middle, with half wanting to stress bringing the troops home as fast as possible and a bit more than a third, according to the latest Fox News poll, wanting America to stay long enough to finish the job.
On domestic issues, where Kerry's voters at least agree with one another, he is undermined by Bush's increasing economic success, robbing his challenger of his best issue. It is hard to base a campaign on economic disaster when the unemployment rate is near historic lows and rapidly dipping toward 5 percent.
Add to those elements the self-promotion of Kerry's advisers who cannot keep their mouths shut and insist on grabbing the limelight from their candidate, and you have one of the worst-run campaigns since the time this same team made its national debut: The ill-fated campaign against Bush's father by another liberal Democrat from Massachusetts, Gov. Mike Dukakis, in 1988.
The current mantra of the Kerry campaign is to go negative. Embracing the style of Harry Truman without his substance, the Democratic strategists (a term one uses loosely) have decided that voters want a combative, happy warrior on the stump. But attacking an incumbent president is like punching a pillow.
As Clinton-turned-Kerry advisers Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart should remember, it is very hard for a president's adversaries to increase his negative ratings by attacking him. Once someone has served as president, voters tend to base their opinions of his tenure on their own observations rather than on partisan attacks. And his time before taking office e.g. his military record matters not at all.
But a challenger's record and background are avidly followed by voters who need signals and signs to try to understand what kind of president this largely unknown candidate would make. They sift through all the stories and evidence to find clues in his past.
More than anything else, voters want to know what new directions a challenger to a sitting president offers. Bill Clinton gave them a bunch when he ran against George H.W. Bush in 1992: ending welfare "as we know it," focusing on the economy "like a laser beam" and guaranteeing healthcare "to all Americans." Ronald Reagan offered an equally specific and compelling alternative to Jimmy Carter in 1980.
But all Kerry provides is criticism and negatives about the Bush administration.
Each time he attacks Bush, he pushes himself down among the American voters and comes across as negative, whining and complaining.
How did the Democrats end up in such a mess? Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe is to blame. It was he who decided to frontload the primaries to produce an early winner. Kerry got the nomination without any real audition. There was never a chance to road-test his candidacy or even to refine his message on a national stage.
He was nominated because he was the un-Howard Dean and because the moderates Dick Gephardt, John Edwards, Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark never got untracked. Had the process stretched over several months instead of a few weeks, the flaws in Kerry's candidacy would have become obvious and he would have been forced, in the crucible of conflict, to elaborate a more coherent message. Now he only has seven weeks to get his act together.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, most recently, "Rewriting History", a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History. (ClickHERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Dick Morris