1. Conventional wisdom rules. John Kerry started out the front-runner, according to the political handicappers. And largely because of the same reasons that he was initially dubbed the guy-to-beat, he ended up the front-runner, winning nine of ten contests on Super Tuesday. The no-longer-running Howard Dean finally won a state: Vermont. Kerry was the safe choice. Democrats went for a fellow who was not too young, not too fiery, not too bold, not too flashy; they selected a solid, workhorse Democrat who is mostly liberal but who is no rip-roaring populist. He has the experience and the gravitas–perhaps too much gravitas–to be president. Some observers have likened Kerry to the dead-man-walking Bob Dole of 1996, but Kerry, who could use a jolt of Dole-like humor, is much more a fighter. Don’t forget he was a crusading prosecutor before becoming lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Which brings us to the next point.
2. A million cuts. A journalist called me the other day to ask what would be the most perilous time for Kerry between now and the convention. My answer: every day. It’s clear the Bush campaign strategy is to nick away at Kerry 24/7. They will go over the thousands of votes Kerry has cast and use them as ammunition, accusing him of voting to weaken national defense and supporting wacko liberal positions. This has already started. The White House and the GOP have cited long-ago votes against certain weapons systems as evidence Kerry cannot be trusted to safeguard America. Recently Fred Kaplan on Slate debunked much of this early attack. A good example he cited: Republican Party chief Ed Gillespie slammed Kerry for having voted to cut $1.5 billion from the intelligence budget in 1995. But this money was appropriated for a spy satellite that the National Reconnaissance Office never launched. And the Senate was voting to rescind these funds, which were not going to be used. A majority of the Senate supported this position. But facts don’t matter. The goal of the GOP is to turn Kerry into a bleeder. To force him to explain his votes and past positions over and over–and then again. Even if he has reasonable explanations, he still could end up looking weak if he constantly has to defend his past actions. Kerry is going to have to find a way to answer the attacks without becoming too entangled in a charge-countercharge dance. He has to avoid appearing as if he has lots of ‘splaining to do, but he also cannot let criticism go unanswered. This will not be easy. His top aides tell me that they are ready for the Bush assault. But they are only now in the process of creating a war-room type of operation to deal with the incoming.
3. After 9/11, grown-ups are wanted. John Edwards ran a swell campaign. He had the best speech of all the candidates. (“There are two Americas….”) He had the best temperament. And he has plenty of brains beneath his golden locks. But he couldn’t seal the deal. He didn’t even come close. It was not because of his ideas; he had few policy differences with Kerry. It was not because he didn’t have the funds to make himself and his positions known to primary voters. It was probably because in this post-9/11 period he did not come across as ready-to-lead. He has not finished his first term in the Senate; he had no previous experience in government or foreign policy. He talked–at length!–about sharing the values of the working class (having been the son of a mill worker before becoming a millionaire trial attorney) and understanding their lives (presumably in a way that the blue-blooded Kerry could not). But empathy only goes so far. It’s not the same as inspiring confidence and reassurance. And it could well be that Democratic voters in 2004 wanted a candidate who reeks of maturity and experience. Edwards was confronted by a stature gap–and the gap won. After 9/11, protector-in-chief is at the top of the list of the president’s job responsibilities. Edwards was not able to persuade voters he yet has the chops for that.
4. Issues? We don’t need no stinking issues? This was not a contest decided by issues. Most Democratic primary voters were opposed to the Iraq war, skeptical of Nafta and similar trade accords, and uneasy about the Patriot Act. Yet the two candidates who fared best in the primary contest–Kerry and Edwards–both voted for legislation granting Bush the authority to go to war and for the Patriot Act. Kerry voted for Nafta; Edwards was not yet in the Senate for that vote, but he did vote for extending most favored nation trading status to China. No issue–not even the war–defined the campaign for most voters. When Howard Dean, the only top-tier candidate who had opposed the war, dropped out, his antiwar vote did not flock to Representative Dennis Kucinich, the only other serious antiwar candidate. (Sharpton is not a serious candidate.) Edwards tried to make trade an issue separating himself from Kerry. But he was hanging on to a thin reed: that his criticism of the recent trade pacts was edgier than Kerry’s. But that effort failed. Union voters–who perhaps are the most concerned about trade–still went overwhelmingly for Kerry. This was a contest among candidates not messages. Dean learned that early. Which brings us to electability.
5. It ain’t no sin to be electable. And there’s nothing wrong with a voter using electability as a criterion. When I heard voters remark that Kerry had the E-quality, they often explained it by saying he possessed a solid record in the Senate, had acquired years of experience in foreign policy, boasted sound and decent policy stands, and was ready and able to challenge Bush forcefully. Those are all fine reasons for picking a candidate. Selecting a candidate based on electability is not necessarily a cop-out; it’s rendering the judgment that the candidate is equipped to beat the other guy and become president. In 2000, many Republicans signed on early with George W. Bush, noting his electability. But what they had in mind was that he had the bucks, the brand name and the endorsements needed to clobber his primary opponents. They were right, and it worked out well for Republicans and conservatives. Kerry’s so-called electability seems based more on his qualifications than his advantages.
6. But what about Edwards’ cross-over appeal? Yes, Edwards did well among Republicans and independents in those states where the Rs and Is can vote in the Democratic primary. But in 2000 Senator John McCain was a big hit with the Indies and had more appeal to Dems than Bush. And he only got so far. In party primaries, the first-place ribbon goes to the guy who excites (or wins the votes of) the party faithful. Parties do not nominate folks because they are liked by the other side. That’s the way it is. Each party is burdened by this dynamic. And most Republicans who voted for Edwards would probably end up voting for Bush.
7. Edwards for veep? He has a net worth of millions, but Edwards is not a retire-early-and-take-up-fly-fishing guy. He’s already given up his Senate seat. What’s he to do now, except angle to be Kerry’s sidekick? He could be a fine choice. But it’s far too early for Kerry to be thinking about getting hitched. He has until the convention in late July. And he should wait to see how the race against Bush develops. Then he will know what he might need (or want) in a running mate. Perhaps polls will show a toss-up state Kerry must win is fading for him. A veep candidate from that state might reverse the drift. It’s true that a running mate rarely has much impact on a presidential race. (See Dan Quayle.) But if a few extra votes can be gained by a good pick, Kerry ought to make his calculated choice as close to the November election as possible. Edwards will have to sit tight.
8. Kucinich has pushed far enough. Every presidential campaign needs someone to push the policy envelope. With his advocacy of a single-payer, nonprofit healthcare system, his proposal for a Department of Peace, his pledge to trash Nafta, and his call to replace U.S. troops in Iraq with international peacekeepers (a plan that rests on several optimistic assumptions), Kucinich played that noble role. But now it’s time to fold the tent. He had his shot. The left wing of the party–the peaceniks, the anti-Naftaistas–did not rally behind him in sufficient numbers. And the math is undeniable; he has no chance. One can–and should–only defy the physical laws of the universe for so long. Yet before the votes were tallied on Super Tuesday Kucinich was vowing to keep going until the convention. On CNN, he claimed that Democrats had to choose him because he is the only candidate who could bring in “the Greens, the Natural Law Party.” The Natural Law Party? While every vote does count–Florida showed that–it’s doubtful that the Democratic nominee’s fortunes will rise or fall on the disposition of the Natural Law Party vote. And Kucinich failed to win over more than 9 percent of the Democratic voters of his home state of Ohio. With his presidential campaign, Kucinich did position himself as a–if not the–leading progressive of the House Democrats. But if Kucinich stays in the race, insisting that only he can beat Bush by attracting outsider voters, he risks coming across as a crank who cannot recognize political realities rather than as a visionary willing to challenge conventional thinking.
9. If Kucinich should go, then Sharpton should really go. It’s galling to watch this man go on and on about the need to stay in the race so he can arrive at the convention with delegates and make sure his party ends up with the right policy positions. Sharpton endorsed Republican Senator Alfonse D’Amato, an ethics-challenged machine hack, in 1986 over Democratic nominee Mark Green. (History declared: I worked on the Green campaign.) Sharpton also supported Republican Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral bid in 2001 (again, over Green). And this year he is being advised and assisted (including financially) by GOP strategist Roger Stone, who was involved in the so-called khaki riot at the Dade County municipal office in 2000 that may have led to the shutdown of the Miami recount. So where is (and was) the party loyalty Sharpton now cites as his reason for staying in the race until the convention? He’s not in this for a platform debate–as if that matters this year. He’s in this to advance a single cause: Al Sharpton. He wants the camera time, and he wants a speaking gig at the convention. The Democrats have showed him more than enough kindness. He’s lucky to have received the free air time he’s already obtained. This reverend deserves no more time in the pulpit.
10. It’s the journalists, stupid? Right before Kerry made his victory speech on Super Tuesday, one of his top advisers told me, “The real question in this race will be, do American journalists take presidential politics seriously?” By that he meant that the media can play a critical role in the contest: truth-testing the attacks (and shaming candidates that mount dishonest and unfair assaults), highlighting the important policy differences between Bush and Kerry, and making clear for the voters exactly what is at stake. He obviously believes that Kerry would benefit from such media behavior. But if the Kerry campaign is relying upon the media to do a good job consistently on these fronts, then Democrats ought to worry. Kerry now has to figure out how to do three things simultaneously: thwart the Bush attacks, launch his attacks on Bush, and present a positive message based on his positions and his own attributes and past actions. He cannot count on reporters to assist him. This is not their fight; it’s his. And it will be a helluva battle.
*********DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! 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.” For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.