Among the political press corps-a well-heeled herd as susceptible to fashion as any high-school clique-the reigning trend is to declare John Kerry’s candidacy moribund. From cranky left to triumphal right, commentators compete to insult the Massachusetts Senator. The consensus ranges from “He’s struggling” to “He stinks,” and legions of mostly unnamed but very important Democrats are said to be “freaked out,” “grumbling,” “fearful” and swooning en masse from “buyer’s remorse.”
In The Village Voice , Democrats are urged to dump Mr. Kerry, with scarcely an acknowledgment that he quite recently secured the party’s nomination with landslide victories in nearly every primary and caucus. (That may not be terribly democratic advice, but then who cares what the actual voters think?) In The Wall Street Journal , Democrats are portrayed as glumly “stuck with Mr. Kerry” while verging on “quiet panic.”
To read those downbeat descriptions is to assume that George W. Bush is poised to win by a landslide. The innocent reader would hardly imagine that Mr. Kerry actually leads Mr. Bush in the latest polls of likely voters.
For the moment, the horrific photographs of torture and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib prison and the general deterioration of conditions in Iraq appear to be doing serious damage to the President. The most recent Gallup survey, released on May 11 by CNN and USA Today , shows that 48 percent of Americans believe the President can better handle “the situation in Iraq,” while 45 percent place more confidence in his Democratic challenger. Two months ago, Mr. Bush led Mr. Kerry on that measure by 15 points.
Well before the administration’s disastrous failures in Iraq became too obvious to ignore, the indicators were not so encouraging for the President. Most Americans are worried by the nation’s direction under the stewardship of Mr. Bush. Today, more than 60 percent of Americans tell Gallup that they are “dissatisfied with the way things are going in the country.” That is the highest level of discontent recorded by Gallup since January 1996 (when ranking pundits told President Clinton to forget about reelection).
So Mr. Bush’s numbers continue their dizzying descent, despite Karl Rove’s expenditure since March of an estimated $60 million on national television advertising. If that sounds like a lot of money, even for a Republican, it is. Sixty million dollars is more than any Presidential candidate has ever spent on TV commercials-during an entire campaign. Early analysis of the results may not have encouraged Mr. Rove, since they suggested that in the so-called “purple” states where the race is most competitive, the President’s numbers dropped after his ad blitz.
No doubt the negative blasts by the Bush campaign hurt Mr. Kerry, who permitted the Republicans to “define” him in the eyes of some voters before he could present himself to them. For reasons best known to themselves, certain members of the press are amplifying and exaggerating the effects of the Republican attack. Supine cooperation with the G.O.P. has become standard operating procedure in election years for elements of the mainstream media. This year, the Republicans would like nothing better than to demoralize Democrats before the general election actually begins.
There are certainly problems and glitches in the Kerry campaign. He isn’t a scintillating speaker, and he should speak more plainly and forthrightly. But before anyone takes the media’s funereal pronouncements about Mr. Kerry too seriously, let’s not forget the record of his would-be pallbearers. These are, after all, the same experts who assured us last year that Mr. Kerry had irrevocably blown his chances, that Howard Dean was almost certain to secure the Democratic nomination, and that Mr. Bush was virtually “unbeatable.”
Those bits of conventional wisdom were all embarrassingly wrong (although those who parroted them seem forever immune to embarrassment). And back then, the same correspondents who now collect anonymous insults about Mr. Kerry were also quite pessimistic about his chances.
When the Massachusetts Senator fired his campaign team last fall, The New York Times derided his decision-later hailed for turning the race around-as “a bit of scapegoating by a candidate who seems on the rocks.” On New Year’s Day, just before his victories in Iowa and New Hampshire and everywhere else, The Times said Mr. Kerry “may be remembered for running the worst campaign of the year, squandering a perception by many Democrats that he was among the party’s strongest candidates.”
The worst campaign indeed, except for all the others. (Only in the American political press could anyone be accused of “squandering a perception.”) Since that dark assessment, Mr. Kerry has not only locked up his party’s delegates, but he has also held the largest fund-raising dinner in history and raised more money in a single quarter than any candidate ever, including our gilded President.
Nobody knows what will happen in the next six months, and nobody needs to panic yet-not even Karl Rove.