Jewish World Review Sept. 24, 2004 / 9 Tishrei, 5765
Plagued by strategic madness
Watching the Kerry campaign in action this week, we couldn't help thinking of a venerable '80s movie, "A Fish Called Wanda." In it, Kevin Kline is Otto West, a man who reads Plato and practices Eastern meditation but understands neither. After years of posturing, he is dismayed to learn from a friend that, "The central message of Buddhism is not: 'Every man for himself.' "
Put another way, more presidential campaigns die of stupidity than of any other cause. And this week, amid the frenzy over CBS' use of fake documents on George Bush's National Guard service, the Kerry campaign has made its situation progressively worse. As recently as yesterday, Democrats were still swearing they would get to the bottom of those unaccounted weeks from Bush's National Guard service so long ago.
The insistence is some sort of madness: The Democrats should be rubbing their last genie right now to ensure that the National Guard story disappears and their candidate gets a chance to be heard by the voters. Six weeks from the election, the CBS documents debacle, apparently intended to help John Kerry, has become the kind of flytrap we wouldn't wish on any candidate.
Kerry needs to clear the air of such buffoonery so his positions can stick.
It has become popular in recent weeks to attribute Bush's widening margin to the "mudslinging" of the Bush campaign. Vice President Dick Cheney and others certainly have been forceful in their criticisms. But a closer look at the polls tells a different story: On the chatterbox subjects of National Guard and Vietnam service, Bush and Kerry have almost identical credibility numbers with Kerry even getting a slight edge. The weeks of chewing over ancient records seem to have garnered a resounding "so what?"
Instead, it's on the question of knowing what each candidate stands for where Kerry lags dreadfully behind, with only 38 percent of voters saying they have heard him loud and clear.
Tempting as it is to blame a campaign that seemed temporarily unmoored after the Republican convention, the fogginess isn't entirely Kerry's fault. He's been out there every day, campaigning and speaking to the "real folks" in their swing state hometowns, offering proposals for Hillary-style national health care and ways to manipulate corporations to keep jobs at home, if you like that sort of thing. And in a bid to jump-start some momentum again on the Big Topic, he gave his most heated speech to date on Bush's Iraq policy at New York University this week.
To a capacity crowd of collegiate admirers, Kerry bellowed that Bush is guilty of "reckless mistakes" as well as "arrogance and outright incompetence." For a fire-up-the-base effort, it was pretty decent. Too bad it had to share media attention with Dan Rather's mea culpa.
Now the latest headlines are trying to link the forged documents story to the Kerry campaign because CBS producer Mary Mapes arranged for their purveyor to speak with Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart. While the decision reflects badly on Mapes, it's no smoking gun on the Kerry side. As in the case with the so-called Bush connections to the Swift Boat Vets, charges of collusion are mostly silly:
Presidential campaigns are only too happy to keep their own hands clean of that fray. Their supporters know what to do and can be expected to pick up the ball on their own.
The Democrats' dogged pursuit of the National Guard story through all this is perhaps an understandable desire for political payback. But it is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the voters. The Swift Boat Vets story got legs because it addressed Kerry's primary claim for what kind of wartime leader he would be (i.e., a good one because he was a good soldier in Vietnam). Contrary to the efforts to make it a parallel issue, the National Guard story is irrelevant to most people because they already know for better or worse exactly what kind of wartime leader Bush is.
Still, despite Bush's widening margins, this election will hinge on the ability to turn out the bases. Judging by Kerry's recent tough rhetoric and even the conversion of John Edwards into a rabid golden retriever, the debates may provide Americans with a crisper choice than they've seen thus far in the campaign.
Kerry is a good debater and could come off well, provided he doesn't announce himself as "reporting for duty."
JWR contributor Collin Levey is a weekly op-ed columnist at the Seattle Times. Before joining the Times in September 2003, she was an editorial writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal. Comment by clicking here.
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© 2004, Collin Levey