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post #1 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-29-2004, 03:28 PM Thread Starter
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Where Kerry Went Wrong

Where Kerry Went Wrong

Kerry and Shrum got it backward. If they'd sliced up Bush this summer, they could have used the debates to seem presidential

By Jonathan Alter
Newsweek


Sept. 27 issue - After Labor Day, the political calendar goes into a time warp. Everything speeds up. With voters finally starting to pay attention, a week is about the equivalent of a normal month in political time. In late October the intensity can be so great that creative campaigns sometimes accomplish in a single day what it might once have taken three months to imprint on the minds of the voters. We don't know yet if we'll see such inventiveness this year, which means that for all of the weeping and moaning and rending of garments by despondent Democrats, we simply don't know if John Kerry is finished. We do know that his strategy so far, designed by Bob Shrum, lies in ruins, and for reasons that go far beyond the campaign's failure to respond quickly enough to the Swift Boat ads.

Shrum's grand plan wasn't complicated. He figured that with most voters believing the country is on the "wrong track," all that Kerry had to do was establish his credibility as a potential commander in chief and he would win—hence the "bio" convention. No need to respond directly to Bush ads sliming him for wanting to cut the same weapons systems that Bush's father cut. No need to explain how the Iraq war had been botched. No need to discredit Bush at all, because he was already thoroughly discredited.

Oh, well. The Shrum strategy was the product of short-term thinking (the assumption that Bush's unpopularity in the period of the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal would last until fall) and was reinforced by the sealed and often smug world of Democratic politics, where it was taken for granted that Bush was bad, bad, bad, and any reasonable person already knew why. Shrum correctly realized that a Michael Moore-style sledgehammer would do little to sway undecided voters who don't loathe Bush. But Shrum wrongly extrapolated from that point that Kerry had no need to indict Bush in easy-to-remember phrases that would stick. He once told me as much, and that name-calling wouldn't work in post-9/11 presidential politics.

That was wishful thinking. Politics has always been a contact sport where the winning team is the one that pins the kick me sign on the other guy. This is especially true in a race involving an incumbent. Focus groups always tell consultants that they're turned off by negative campaigning. It sounds good and makes them feel virtuous, but it's not true. Except in multicandidate races like the Democratic primaries, where voters can reject both the attacker and the attacked in favor of a third choice, the edge always goes to the predator over the victim. Americans like their candidates tough, especially during a war.

So Kerry and Shrum got the strategy exactly backward. If Kerry had used sticky language and cut-through-the-clutter ads to slice up Bush over the summer, he could have used the debates to seem positive and presidential. This is what Reagan did in 1980 against Jimmy Carter. He attacked him every day, then, with Carter discredited, left it to the debates for voters to say, "This other guy will do."

With his strategy in tatters, Kerry must now discredit Bush and simultaneously sell his own vision. This will be difficult for a candidate for whom straightforward English is often a second language. But it's hardly impossible, especially with Iraq melting down. The key is to focus less on the past—9/11 is Bush's ace in the hole—and more on the present and the future, with a focus on the visceral and personal: Where's bin Laden? We've got him neither dead nor alive. Will your sons and daughters be sent off to fight in a second Bush term? You've got health insurance now, but will you lose it soon? Nailing Bush means painting a big "F" for failure on his forehead for what's going on right now, then pivoting to explain in the simple terms that have eluded Kerry what he would do differently in the months ahead: Give reconstruction contracts to allies in exchange for helping us stabilize Iraq. Set a date certain for getting out of Iraq. Promise we'll never have another Iraq. Fight terrorism where it threatens us most, which is not in Iraq.

Can all of Kerry's qualifiers, gaffes and flip-flops on Iraq be finessed with a KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) strategy? Yep. That's the magic of general elections, where 50 million likely voters are just tuning in. With a few choice one-liners, the onus of responsibility can be placed back where it belongs—on Bush. Ripping off the GOP's 1994 "Contract With America" would also help. Voters needs to know four or five simple things that Kerry and the Democrats would do immediately. As the clock winds down, the odds against a Kerry victory grow longer every day. But a day can be enough in politics, for those who can fight and KISS at the same time.
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post #2 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-29-2004, 07:11 PM
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

The right wing seems to be in a convulsion of counting chickens before they have hatched.

Kerry's critical mistake was not any of the gaffes or Swift boat ads, it was the day he said he would have done Iraq the same as he had done before and would have voted for the war even given the knowledge of no WMDs.

Kerry and his advisors failed to see that while Kerry was the candidate of the party machine, his actual popular support was coming from former Dean supporters who switched to him when Dean started looking like a flake. Their #1 issue is the War in Iraq. He seriously shot himself in the ass with his statement supporting the war. Up to that point, he was given a pass because most of his base figured he had been duped by Bush the same way that a lot of them felt they had been. If he had played it that way, he would not be in the shape he is in now. With his statement, he skewered the reason his shaky base was giving him a pass. It took the fire out of the whole movement, and his momentum was lost. He's been trying to kiss up to that sector of his base for weeks now, and it may be paying off.

He gets one last shot at it. I have no pretensions on his chances. But every poll taken on the subject of the debates shows Bush could easily lose the election because his weak supporters, about 18% of his poll numbers, are looking for an excuse not to vote for him and find one to vote for Kerry if he can somehow change the perception he is an unknown quantity.


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post #3 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-29-2004, 07:57 PM
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

That s simple pimple, breathing.
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post #4 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-29-2004, 10:27 PM Thread Starter
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

Presentation and perception are everything for the candidates during the debates.

Bush has to show that he can speak in complete sentences. Kerry has to show that he can answer questions without becoming verbose and boring -- without droning on.

Kerry needs the debates to win. If the debates don't give him the boost he needs, such as what happened right after the Democratic Convention, he'll go down fast.

Regardless of what's really said during the debates, many of the undecided voters will side with the candidate that appears sharp (not necessarily intellectual), somewhat charismatic and "presidential."
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post #5 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-29-2004, 10:36 PM
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

I agree - Kerry needs the debates badly, but he'd better not act like he does. He needs to come off as strong and decisive. Frankly, I think he'll have some trouble tomorrow. I don't see the economy as his strong suit.

"If spending money you don't have is the height of stupidity, borrowing money to give it away is the height of insanity." -- anon
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post #6 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-29-2004, 10:40 PM Thread Starter
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

You're right, but he'll attack Bush on it (the economy) and it'd be up to Bush to loose it.
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post #7 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-30-2004, 12:30 AM
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

Bush has not been doing well in unscripted settings. His Russett interview was a disaster, the last news conference went over so well he hasn't had one since, his state of the union fell flat and his appearances before the UN drew yawns. His campaign appearances are carefully crafted to keep the general public out. Some people have speculated that Bush has been losing his cool too easily - the pressure is getting to him, so his handlers keep him carefully controlled surroundings and with press that pitches him friendly softballs like that dork Brit Hume or the other dork, O'reilly. Don't be surprised if Bush blows this.
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post #8 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-30-2004, 02:11 AM
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

there was a funny piece on NBC eve news tonight in which they interviewed people who have debated Kerry and Bush in the past.
Kerry's former foe said that Kerry has a mastery of the issues, and can quickly call you to task on them, but tends to be a little long-winded.
Bush's former foe said he is excellent at staying on-message, repeating the same thing over and over and over again, even if it is not the answer- it's what he wants you to hear.

I have a friend with a parrot that stays on-message in this way...

I guess they didnt mean for the piece to be funny...

I hope Kerry has some substance to offer- we're getting together with a group to watch so maybe there will be an interesting show. or at least maybe some nice wine to drink...

k

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post #9 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-30-2004, 07:28 AM
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

Forget about the wine - Koolaid is being served in everybody's house tonight!



Step on up and drink a cup!
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post #10 of 15 (permalink) Old 09-30-2004, 12:10 PM Thread Starter
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RE: Where Kerry Went Wrong

When put on the spot, Bush is not as bad as he use to be but he's still got his work cut out for him before the debate. Kerry's learned that droning on is borish and makes him look stupid, too. It'll be interesting to watch.
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