How Kerry Can Win

How Kerry Can Win

John Kerry can win, given George W. Bush’s incompetence, and White House strategists realize that.


John Kerry can win, given George W. Bush’s incompetence, and White House strategists realize that. All the Democrats need to do is to peel away some of the Republican “unbase”–the most wobbly members of the GOP coalition. The caveat is that not many Democrats understand that coalition or why it has beaten the Democrats most of the time since 1968. Nor do most understand the convoluted but related role of Bill Clinton in aborting what could have been a 1992-2004 (or 2008) mini-cycle of Democratic White House dominance and in paving the way for George W.

Elements of this shortsightedness are visible in both the party and the Kerry campaign. While attempts to harness “Anybody but Bush” psychologies and to attract voters without saying much that is controversial might win Kerry a narrow victory, this strategy would be unlikely to create a framework for successful four- or eight-year governance. Deconstructing the Republican coalition is a better long-term bet, and could be done. The result, however, might be to uncage serious progressive reform.

Republicans, in contrast, have been successful in thinking strategically since the late 1960s. From 1968 until Bill Clinton’s triumph in 1992, Republicans won five of the six presidential elections, and even Jimmy Carter’s narrow victory in 1976 was in many respects a post-Watergate fluke. The two main coalitional milestones were Richard Nixon’s 61 percent in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s 59 percent in 1984.

The two Bushes, notwithstanding their dynastic achievement, represent the later-stage weakness of the coalition, which would have been more obvious without the moral rebukes of Clinton that were critical in the 1994 and 2000 elections. In the three presidential elections the Bushes have fought to date, their percentages of the total national vote have been 53.9 percent (1988), 37.7 percent (1992) and 47.9 percent (2000)–an average of 46.5 percent. Keep in mind that in 1992, Bush Senior got the smallest vote share of any President seeking re-election since William Howard Taft in 1912, while in 2000, the younger Bush became the first President to be elected without winning a plurality of the popular vote since Benjamin Harrison in 1888. The aftermath of 9/11 created transient strength, but the essential weakness of the Bushes was palpable again by mid-2004.

Strategizing on behalf of a family with more luck and lineage than gravitas, the principal strategists for each Bush President–Lee Atwater for number 41 and Karl Rove for number 43–have necessarily been Machiavellian students of the Republican presidential coalition and how to maintain it. After helping to elect 41 in 1988 because Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis was an Ivy League technocrat unconvincing as an occasional populist, Atwater observed that “the way to win a presidential election against the Republicans is to develop the class-warfare issue, as Dukakis did at the end. To divide up the have and have-nots.” Since then, the focus on keeping Republicans together has evolved and intensified.

Despite the Republican weakness evident in 1992 and Bush’s second-place finish in 2000, Rove is notable for his preoccupation with the GOP “base,” which he presumably thinks of in normal majoritarian terms. However, in the case of Bush’s running for election or re-election, it is also useful–and the Democrats of 2004 would find it particularly worthwhile–to focus on the GOP’s “unbase.” This, in essence, is the 20-25 percent of the party electorate that has been won at various points by three national anti-Bush primary and general election candidates with Republican origins: Ross Perot (1992), John McCain (2000) and, in a lesser vein, Patrick Buchanan (1992). Most of the shared Perot-McCain issues–campaign and election reform, opposition to the religious right, distaste for Washington lobbyists, opposition to upper-bracket tax biases and runaway deficits, criticism of corporations and CEOs–are salient today and more compatible with the mainstream moderate reformist Democratic viewpoint than with the lobbyist-driven Bush Administration. Perot and Buchanan’s economic nationalism (anti-outsourcing, anti-NAFTA) and criticism of Iraq policy under the two Bushes is also shared by many Democrats.

Taking things somewhat further, these members of the “unbase” of the Republican presidential coalition ought to be the Democrats’ key target because (1) they have some degree of skepticism about Bush and (2) they are the segment of the GOP coalition most logically open to recruitment for a progressive realignment, short-term or otherwise. That is the way small or large realignments work: by wooing the most empathetic part of the current coalition.

In 1992, when Perot drew 19 percent of the November vote, George Bush Senior got only about 80 percent of the Republican vote. Most of the “unbase” and part of the base deserted. If McCain had been well funded in 2000, he might have been able to get 30-40 percent in GOP primaries nationally, and even without serious money, he did win the primaries in seven states, including New Hampshire, Michigan and Connecticut. Sticking with the idea that the GOP “unbase” is somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent, Bush can afford to lose 5 to 7 percent of the overall Republican electorate. But if he loses 10 percent, he’s probably done for, and if he drops 15 percent, he’s finished.

It could happen. Back in late winter, when Kerry still had a winner’s aura from the primaries, one CBS News poll showed 11 percent of those who had voted for Bush in 2000 were unprepared to do so in 2004. That was enough to put Kerry ahead, at least until the GOP’s spring advertising blitz.

Kerry looked better by late June, but part of the reason for Kerry’s–and the Democrats’–failure to capitalize on Bush’s weaknesses is that they seem unable to decide between two very different strategies. One might be called the Wall Street strategy, which includes rhetoric about failed policies in Iraq and GOP tax cuts that pander to the rich, but avoids most specifics or bold indictments of Bush failure. Critiques of US economic polarization, NAFTA or globalization are sidestepped, and the example of Clinton-era federal deficit reduction so admired by Wall Street is held up. Indeed, Kerry’s demeanor is appropriate to a man married into one of the biggest US corporate fortunes.

It is plausible to think that this will enable Kerry to draw a slightly improved vote among upper-middle-class and even fat-cat Republicans disenchanted with Bush as an incompetent cowboy who has bungled Iraq and pandered to Falwell, Robertson and Bob Jones University. Pinstriped caution has already helped the Massachusetts Senator to haul in record levels of Democratic contributions, some from Republicans and independents. Still, for all its success in Manhattan, the Hamptons and Santa Barbara, this is not a strategy that resonates with swing voters in battleground states from Ohio to New Mexico.

The alternative–at once bolder and riskier, but with a larger potential electorate–involves targeting the ordinary Republicans who rejected at least one generation of Bushes to back Perot or McCain. These voters–not a few thousand elites but millions of the rank and file–are concentrated in the middle-class precincts of swing states like Maine, New Hampshire, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado and the Pacific Coast.

Even by the campaign’s own polls, it is precisely the Perot-McCain states that Kerry most needs to win. For Democratic and left-tilting progressives, the second benefit is luring voters drawn to the outsider economics of Perot and McCain, not to the insider calculations of big donors and fundraisers like former Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. It is the Perot-McCain constituency, more than the elite Democratic entente, that could best catalyze a bipartisan progressive coalition. A partial analogy, at least, can be made to the role that GOP progressives like George Norris, Hiram Johnson and Robert La Follette Jr. played during the 1930s in launching the New Deal. Convincing John McCain to run for Vice President in a Kerry fusion ticket would have been the strongest tactic, but Edwards is a persuasive alternative. Now for Kerry to repeat the boldness and refreshing candor would be an important further change of pace.

In addition to adopting a bolder style, national Democrats also need to grasp Bill Clinton’s role during the 1990s in aborting some national trends and stirring others that did his party considerable harm. Indeed, Clinton’s moral notoriety was central to the rise of George W. Bush at two junctures–Bush’s initial election as governor of Texas in 1994, a year dominated (especially in Dixie) by an anti-Clinton backlash, and the presidential race of 2000, in which regional disgust with Clinton was so strong that even Tennessee Southern Baptist Al Gore could not carry Arkansas and Tennessee against the religion-linked Bush campaign for moral restoration.

Without these offsets to Clinton’s lengthy prosperity, it seems clear that 1992 should have ushered in a twelve-to-sixteen-year Democratic mini-cycle. Indeed, the sixteen-point collapse in Bush Senior’s vote between 1988 and 1992 was the sort of hemorrhage mostly seen on previous realignment occasions. Clinton’s failure to take advantage of this opportunity, instead facilitating the Bushes’ return in dynastic form, is one of the too-little-understood ingredients of the 2000 upheaval.

Part of the emptiness of the Democrats’ pinstriped or don’t-rock-the-boat strategy is that it doesn’t grapple with these circumstances. Not just the South but the kindred pivotal border states and the Ohio Valley cannot be counted on to reward a Democrat trumpeting the Clinton memory and legacy. Nor does bland centrism effectively respond to the Bush family’s regaining of the presidency in 2000 by tactics and subsequent inroads on small-d democracy and small-r republicanism to which only a feckless Democratic nominee could turn the other cheek.

However, let it pass for the moment that Bush was put in office only by a 5-to-4 decision of the Supreme Court, hijacked the Democrats’ mini-cycle, fought and botched the first father-and-son war in US annals and convinced 55-60 percent of Americans that the nation is on the wrong course. There is a more stark yardstick that even cautious Democrats should understand: In 1991-92, George H.W. Bush, prior to his defeat, fell from a record high job-approval rating of 90 percent after the Gulf War to a low 30s summer bottom before the election. His son, who hit the low 90s right after 9/11, by early June had fallen to 42-43 percent, another fifty-point decline. No elected President has ever done this; the Bushes have done it twice. Maybe it’s the gene pool.

Back in 1992, Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot went after Bush with the gloves off, softening him up so that the Democratic nominee Clinton didn’t have to do that much. In 2000 Al Gore didn’t run a strong campaign–his occasional populism was as labored as fellow Harvard man Dukakis’s in 1988–but some Republicans and independents had taken their cues from McCain. This year, by contrast, Bush had no primary challenge and will have no ex-Republican third-party opponent. Sure, some Republicans have attacked Bush through books, but while that’s probably been worth a point or two, it’s not the same thing.

To win this election decisively, John Kerry is going to have to feel the same outrage that Howard Dean felt, and he’s going to have to express some of it with the same merciless candor that the Republican dissidents have employed against two generations of Bushes. In today’s circumstances of a nation on the wrong track, most swing voters–especially wavering GOP men who grew up on John Wayne movies–will not be content with pablum. The Edwards selection seemed assertive, but if Kerry reverts to equivocation, he could face the ultimate epitaph on a political tombstone: Here lies John Kerry, the first Democratic nominee to lose to a Bush President who’d already dropped fifty points in job approval and earned the snickers of half the world.

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