Kerry's quagmire

Kerry on Meet the Press John Kerry on Meet the Press, 18-Apr-04. Note flag lapel pin, asserting that it isn't just republicans that can claim to be patriotic

Bogged down in words, words, words, words, words

John Kerry won enough delegates in the Democratic primaries to become the nominee to face off against George Bush in the presidential election in November. Then Kerry went on vacation. This gave the Bushies an opening to crank up their attack machine and define their opponent the way they wanted to.

Yesterday, Kerry appeared on Meet the Press for the entire hour. Unfortunately, the way he presented himself simply played into the hands of the Bush machine. It showed all too well why Kerry may have trouble connecting with the "average Joe" of the American electorate.

One theme the Bushies have adopted is to portray Kerry as someone who will say anything, whose positions change with shifts in the political wind. For example, there is the often-aired one-liner, "Senator Kerry has strong opinions; he just doesn't hold them very long."

An article on the Bush website has coined a new word to enhance the mockery:

The Boston Fog Report
An ongoing examination of John Kerry's "nuances and shades of gray in both foreign and domestic policy." (Editorial, "A Primary Endorsement," The New York Times, 2/26/04)

for·a·gainst adverb.
1. To be both for and against something at the same time: e.g. "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." (Glen Johnson, "Kerry Blasts Bush On Protecting Troops," The Boston Globe, 3/17/04)

Another theme the Bushies have struck against Kerry is that his campaign is all negative, that he has no solutions. They cite Kerry's criticism of the Iraq war and claim that Kerry has no plan of his own.

These themes are resonating with American voters, as reflected in opinion poll results cited by host Tim Russert:

Which candidate says what he believes?
Bush — 53%
Kerry — 38%
Senator Kerry...
Says what he believes — 33%
Says what he thinks people want to hear — 57%

Now, anybody who thinks about it for two seconds realizes that The Shrub is hugely guilty of flip-flopping on issues. And most of us realize that although Bush says what he believes, those beliefs are frequently based on faith rather than facts. So, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, if ever there was one.

But... The charges stick against Kerry because he is his own worst enemy. Take, for example, the following exchange on Meet the Press.

Now, we're in a position now to be able to respond and introduce myself to the country. I look forward to that. I look forward to Americans getting to know who I really am.

Let me give you an example. George Bush has no record to run on. He has a record to run away from. He can't come to a city and talk about creating jobs, because he hasn't created them. He's lost them. He can't come anywhere and talk about health care for all Americans, because he has no plan. He can't come and talk about keeping the promise to our children and our schools because he broke it and he doesn't fund it. He can't talk about cleaner air or cleaner water because he's going backwards on those policies. So what does he do? He distorts my record. This president not only misleads America about my record; he misleads his own administration. He misleads his security adviser. He misleads his secretary of state about his own planning for a war.

I think the American people, over the next months, are going to get to see that I have a plan. I have a plan to get people back to work. I have a plan to provide health insurance to all Americans. I have a plan to cut the deficit in half and move us down a road of fiscal responsibility. And Americans are going to hear the truth, which has been sorely lacking from the political discussion of our country.

Kerry is so intent on attacking The Shrub that his example, presumably of who he really is, consists of more than 130 words of attack. Only then does he get around to saying that he has plans for what ails us.

As rhetoric, this is self-defeating: By starting with the attack, he immediately loses anyone inclined to support Bush; they will never hear that he has plans. The other way around would be much more powerful: start with your own strength, get that out while there's still a chance people are listening, then attack the opponent's weakness if you must.

Then there is Kerry's habit of giving long-winded answers. Consider the following exchange:

MR. RUSSERT: This is what you wrote in The Washington Post last Tuesday: "Our country has committed to help the Iraqis build a stable, peaceful and pluralistic society. No matter who is elected president in November, we will persevere in that mission."

SEN. KERRY: Yes, we will.

MR. RUSSERT: That sounds exactly like George Bush.

SEN. KERRY: It's different. Let me explain the difference. You know, last night I got a phone call, Tim, from a great friend of mine from Vietnam, and he was agonized, as I think a lot of veterans are, as they see our young men and women over there trying to distinguish between friend and foe, being ambushed in convoys, not even safe on the airport road, from the airport to Baghdad. I mean, this is extraordinary where we find ourselves. This administration misled America. Nothing is more important than how a president takes a nation to war, how a president decides to put young men and women at risk for our nation. I believe this president broke faith with the rules of how a president does that. He even broke faith with his own promises to the country. He...

MR. RUSSERT: But what can you do now, Senator?

SEN. KERRY: I'll tell you exactly, but it's important to understand why so many countries are unwilling to come to the table now. It may well be that we need a new president, a breath of fresh air, to re-establish credibility with the rest of the world so that we can have a believable administration as to how we proceed. But here is the bottom line: Number one, you cannot bring other nations to the table through the back door. You cannot have America run the occupation, make all the reconstruction decisions, make the decisions of the kind of government that will emerge, and pretend to bring other nations to the table....

Once again, Kerry fails to follow through on his own segue. Rather than say how his position is different, he tells an anecdote and goes on to assail The Shrub.

Now, it is probably true that Meet the Press viewers are probably more receptive to extended discourse than many citizens, but Kerry does this all the time. He needs to listen to the question and then answer directly. He would get a lot more credit for being a principled thinker (in sharp contrast to The Shrub, who rarely has a thought that hasn't been fed to him by his staff) and regarded less as a craven politician.

The veep-stakes. I was also intrigued that Kerry twice during the interview called out his alignment with John McCain, about whom there has been a lot of speculation as a possible Kerry running mate.

• "Well, Tim, as you know, I led the effort with John McCain to try to open up Vietnam..."

• "Well, we did that--we tried to do that that year, but both John McCain and I said at the time" [proposed raising mandated gas mileage for cars and trucks to 35mpg]

Personally I don't think a Kerry-McCain ticket will ever happen, however appealing it might be. It would certainly be a bold move and perhaps even ensure Kerry's election, but I doubt that the Democratic party is ready for such an extreme act of bipartisanship. Besides, I suspect it more likely McCain would be offered the job of Secretary of Defense in a Kerry administration (as republican William Cohen was in the Clinton administration), an offer McCain would be much more likely to accept.