In late May, Senator John Kerry, being interviewed by Associated Press, said he would not appoint to the Supreme Court anyone who would “undermine” abortion rights. That was the customary position for a Democratic presidential candidate. But Kerry kept talking: “That doesn’t mean that if [the Court was not narrowly divided on abortion] I wouldn’t be prepared ultimately to appoint somebody to some court who has a different point of view.” The interviewer had his headline: “Kerry Open to Anti-Abortion Judges.” And before the story was published, the Kerry campaign found itself in another dust-up and had to rush out a clarification in which Kerry vowed, “I will not appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who will undo” the right to an abortion. Two days later, a strategist for the abortion rights community–a veteran politico who has known Kerry for decades–was on a conference call with anti-Bush organizers in swing states. “Welcome to the exasperation of watching Kerry campaign,” this person said. “The good news is he’s thoughtful, intelligent and deliberative, the bad news is he’s thoughtful, intelligent and deliberative. His mind wanders, he likes to see the other side, he ruminates, the shit hits the fan, and he has to backtrack. Get used to it.”
John Kerry campaigning is often not a pretty sight. Democrats and others yearning for the defeat of George W. Bush will have to keep in mind Kerry’s limitations as they assess the candidate and hurl advice at him (be bold, let Bush implode on his own, tack to the center, rally the base, talk about Iraq more, talk about Iraq less). In May, the media carried reports of panic among Democrats disappointed that, given the bad news from Iraq, Kerry had not opened a commanding lead over Bush. But there was no reason to view the absence of a massive Kerry lead as an omen of demise. As Kerry campaign people repeatedly point out, in 1992, before the conventions, Bill Clinton–now regarded as a political Superman–was running third in the polls behind the first George Bush and Ross Perot. Kerry was already competitive with Bush. And Kerry’s record-setting (for a Democrat) fundraising–he bagged twice as much as Bush did in April–quieted some of the intra-party griping. “Because of the money coming in, the campaign is organizing in the swing states earlier than Democrats usually do,” says one Kerry fundraiser. “It’s not as early as it should have been–but earlier than usual.”
The campaign has had troubles. Some Democrats knocked it for not including enough minorities. There was conflict between consultants. And it created a flap by floating the lousy idea that Kerry would not accept the nomination at the convention in order to continue fundraising. But if the campaign organization is, more or less, flying straight and adequately fueled, there still are two causes of concern: Kerry and his message. Are he and his ideas sufficiently well-known and well-regarded so that the candidate and his stands, not merely anti-Bush sentiment, can motivate potential Kerry voters? “It’s no secret that what’s driving the fundraising and support for John Kerry is anti-Bush, not pro-Kerry,” says a Kerry fundraiser. “This election is about Bush. As long as John Kerry doesn’t become a Michael Ducks, he’s fine.”
Is non-Dukakisness really the goal? Or does Kerry need to be a better and/or a bolder standard bearer promoting a more distinct and piercing message? A Democratic consultant not affiliated with Kerry notes the campaign’s decision to focus its first ads on Kerry’s life story, emphasizing his Vietnam days, “made Democrats outside the campaign nervous that Kerry was not out there defining hard issues differences with Bush.” He adds, “By now in 1992 Clinton had already established he was all about improving the economy and dealing with health care. I don’t think voters have any sense of what the Kerry agenda is. An issue agenda will show he’s not just a rich guy, opportunistic and ambitious.”
The campaign has announced the second wave of ads will be issues-oriented, and a senior Kerry adviser remarks, “People needed to know Kerry better. And we think the recent ads have worked.” It’s hard to tell. Bush’s approval numbers were plummeting at the end of May, and Kerry was beating Bush in the match-ups. But polls suggested much of the public viewed Kerry as a whatever-it-takes pol. In one survey, only a third accepted the notion that Kerry says what he believes; 58 percent reported they think Kerry says what he believes people want to hear. And Bush scored higher on leadership traits, such as strength and honesty. A reasonable interpretation of these numbers was that Kerry was benefiting more from Bush’s liabilities–mainly, the screw-ups in Iraq–than his own assets.
“Kerry’s biggest problem is Kerry,” says one of his fundraisers “When he says dumb things–like when said he didn’t own a SUVA, his family did; when he said he voted for the $87 billion in Iraq before he voted against it–he gets hammered. I tell him, make sure you don’t have to explain what you say.” Kerry campaign staffers naturally downplay Kerry’s miscues. “All this stuff about his statements and ruminations, I wonder if the voting public follows it,” says one.
But Kerry and the campaign have yet to convey fully and widely that he is a candidate of strength, purpose, ideas and passion. Late-night host Craig Kilborn cracked, “I just saw John Kerry’s new television commercial, and he said, ‘I’m John Kerry, and I approve of this message–if I have one.'” MoveOn.org has drafted a petition calling on Kerry to “go big” and be “bold.” And reporters, Republicans, and others have asked, where’s Kerry’s plan for Iraq?
All this illustrates the problem with–or confronting–the Kerry campaign, for Kerry does have message, he has gone big on some fronts, and he has presented as much of a plan for Iraq as Bush. But none of this has been much noticed or covered. In the same interview in which he bungled the abortion question, Kerry said, “I’ve heard some people say, well, what’s the message?…The message is clear, folks: We’re going to make America stronger at home by being fiscally responsible, investing in health care and education, becoming energy independent, and we’re going to make ourselves stronger in the world by restoring America’s respect and influence with a better foreign policy. It’s that simple.”
It’s not poetry, but it qualifies as a message. Kerry has pushed an energy independence initiative and a health care proposal both more extensive than anything produced by the Democrats in Congress. Yet there is the matter of his tone. He whacks Bush for pursuing “the most arrogant, reckless, and ideological foreign policy.” But Kerry has backed away from the hard-edged populist rhetoric he deployed late in the primaries. Railing against revolving-door special interests is no longer a climax of his campaign speeches (though a Kerry ad recently blasted Bush for having “taken millions from big oil and gas companies.”) Is he heeding the call of the Democratic Leadership Council and stepping toward the right in an act of ideological repositioning (that may or may not register with the small slice of undecided voters in a few key states)? Or is it more an issue of style?
When Clinton in 1992 wanted to prove he was a “New Democrat,” he promoted welfare reform and showcased his devotion to the death penalty. Kerry has done nothing so dramatic. (He is an opponent of capital punishment.) He has talked about deficit reduction and supported certain tax cuts (while opposing breaks for the wealthy). He has straddled the line between the DLC and the traditional Dems without causing much fuss. To triumph in the battleground states, is it better for Kerry to be a populist firebrand who excites the Democratic base or a center-chaser who nabs swing voters? This is more a question of theology than a correct-or-incorrect choice. Neither path guarantees success. Ask Howard Dean and Joseph Lieberman. A longtime Kerry aide says, “Being perceived as a Kennedy liberal won’t help, but he’s been consistent, talking about equality and justice for working families. Some days it’s heath care, some it’s education. This is no fundamental shift.”
On Iraq, Kerry has crafted a position that differentiates him from Bush but not in black-and-white fashion. “People keep coming up to us saying John Kerry should be more specific on Iraq,” says former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke, a Kerry adviser, “and I ask them, have you read the speech he gave at Westminster College? And people say no.” In that address, Kerry called for fully internationalizing the “transformation of Iraq.” He urged bringing in NATO troops, establishing an international high commissioner for Iraq, and establishing a massive training effort to build Iraq’s own security forces. To stabilize Iraq, he said, he would be open to sending more US troops. Kerry’s position went beyond Bush’s stay-the-coursism, yet it was no clear-sounding call for quick withdrawal. Here was Kerry nuancing his way through a tough call.
There have been debates on Iraq within the campaign’s foreign policy team. “For a while,” says a senior Kerry foreign policy adviser, “the debate was whether it was better not to offer an Iraq plan. Now there’s a continuing discussion on how to deal with the changing realities in Iraq.” But there are no indications Kerry or his camp feels pressure to consider pulling out the troops. “It has been clear to everyone,” this adviser says, “that cutting and running is not the right approach and that Iraq can’t be an American-only operation, that we have to broaden the international role dramatically. But one question has been, how hard do you hit the president? And we also haven’t engaged the issue of an exit date. That’s politically difficult because it would look like cutting and running. Kerry has to establish he’s steely enough to do the job.”
Another foreign policy adviser to the campaign notes, “most of Kerry’s advisers want to get US troops out as quickly as possible. The issue is how direct to be. Perhaps there will be more political pressure for a pullout. I disagreed with him over his vote to authorize the war, but I’ve come round to thinking he has rather good political instincts about these matters.” And while several Democratic foreign policy wonks outside the campaign have advocated setting a deadline for removing US troops, Kerry has not endorsed a D Day for disengagement. “It means,” says Holbrooke, “hardliners get harder and wait you out. A hard date increases the chances of civil war. It’s irresponsible.”
“Kerry is playing it very cautiously,” says a Democrat close to Kerry’s foreign policy team. “It’s a prevent-defense kind of game. He’s counting on Bush to keep making mistakes. I’m skeptical of it. But it could work. My fear is that he’s not setting a strong enough foundation for people not only to reject Bush but to embrace Kerry.” Holbrooke argues that the main issue is the man, not the plan: “In temperament, style and experience, nothing could be more different than John Kerry and George Bush. That’s more important than Kerry’s plan.” For his part, Kerry last month said of Iraq. “You have to give the president some room to get things done, but if he doesn’t do what he has to do….” His voice trailed off. Then he added, “It’s a very difficult thing, but I think the president has to lead. Really lead.” That was hardly a stirring declaration.
The question for the Kerry campaign and Kerry himself is this: should the campaign and Kerry let Kerry be Kerry, or should he be nudged beyond his natural borders. Kerry is a traditional liberal with a careful manner who occasionally, but not steadily, displays commitment and passion. His leads in the polls are likely the results of events beyond his control. But circumstances change, and he has to prepare for that. Can Kerry make a deeper connection with voters without a sharper style or a sharper message? “It is fair to say that we haven’t yet seen the John Kerry who can coldcock George Bush,” says Ralph Whitehead, a professor of public service at University of Massachusetts. ” He has the ability to bring himself to that point. He has time–the convention, the debates. But, certainly, Democrats would feel better if they saw a few flashes now. There is a lot of energy flowing into John Kerry from the anti-Bush forces. But not a lot coming out of him. He has not yet created a feedback loop.” Democrats ought to hope he starts establishing such a loop soon–just in case being the other guy in the race, the one who isn’t Bush, turns out to be not good enough.
DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! An UPDATED and EXPANDED EDITION is NOW AVAILABLE in PAPERBACK. The Washington Post says, “This is a fierce polemic, but it is based on an immense amount of research….[I]t does present a serious case for the president’s partisans to answer….Readers can hardly avoid drawing…troubling conclusions from Corn’s painstaking indictment.” The Los Angeles Times says, “David Corn’s The Lies of George W. Bush is as hard-hitting an attack as has been leveled against the current president. He compares what Bush said with the known facts of a given situation and ends up making a persuasive case.” The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” And GEORGE W. BUSH SAYS, “I’d like to tell you I’ve read [ The Lies of George W. Bush], but that’d be a lie.” For more information and a sample, check out the official website: www.bushlies.com.