Date registered: Sep 2004
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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
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 winĂ˘â‚¬â€ťhence 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 pastĂ˘â‚¬â€ť9/11 is Bush's ace in the holeĂ˘â‚¬â€ťand 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 belongsĂ˘â‚¬â€ťon 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.