With the Kerry candidacy melting faster than a candle at the end of a long, tipsy dinner party, we might as well get started on the postmortems. Better to pass the time passing the blame than sit around guessing what America is going to be like after four more years of family values.
If Mr. Kerry loses, which he seems pretty well set on doing, the moment of defeat will be seen as the decision to go for the Republican trap and raise a hullabaloo about the Swift boat TV advert. A week or more of campaign time was lost in defensive expostulations over how wrong it is and how President Bush should disavow it. Of course, every time Mr. Kerry or his fellow Democrats let loose with a howl over the ad, they lost that many more voters who came to believe it or simply decided that, if the big difference between the two candidates was a silly TV ad, who needs John Kerry?
The Senator’s reaction to the ad was supposedly meant to avoid looking like Michael Dukakis when he was hit with the Willie Horton ad in the 1988 campaign. Another disavowal group, then operating on behalf of Bush the elder, put an ad on TV saying that a murderer had been paroled out of jail by weak-on-crime Massachusetts Governor Dukakis, only to go and commit rape. Mr. Dukakis took what the fancy-pants types on PBS call “the high road” and more or less ignored the attack, apparently to his sorrow. Ever since, it has become an article of faith that every attack must be immediately and loudly answered with earsplitting denials.
Without a doubt, there are times and circumstances when that is the best tactical rejoinder, but in Mr. Kerry’s case, his response was little short of a major blunder. A few crisp denials from Mr. Kerry would have sufficed instead of days of pleading with George Bush to disavow the ad, cat-in-the-alley mewlings about unfairness, whinings about breaking the always-broken, never-enforced election rules, and defensive ventings about what a heroic chap Mr. Kerry is. The end result was to make the Democrats and their candidate look like ineffectual jerks and to make millions of would-be voters forget why it was that Mr. Kerry was running, if they ever knew.
The Republicans have been saying that Mr. Kerry is too weak and wishy-washy to be commander in chief, and this recent performance goes a long way to confirm it. Nobody ever got elected to anything running around crying, “Mama, he hit me!” Politics, as they still say, isn’t bean bag.
The tactically correct answer to the Republican attack was to reply in kind. To counter the Swift boat ad, the Democrats ought to have gotten one of their own front groups like MoveOn.org to run a TV spot beginning with a voice-over saying, “When the going gets tough, President George Bush gets going to the bunker. In the Vietnam War he hid out, and on 9/11 he fled to an underground bunker in Nebraska, where he stayed until he got the all-clear signal.”
The Republicans would split their spleens over such an ad. They would be the ones whimpering over at the Federal Elections Commission to put a stop to the Democrats’ outrageous low-roading. The editorial writers would call the TV spot mud-slinging (which it would be, of course), and the goodie-goodies would declare it “a new low” and so forth and so on-all of which is exactly the reaction you want. The Republican-generated Swift boat controversy would be forgotten and replaced with the Democratic hide-in-the-bunker controversy. The R’s would be on the defensive and the D’s would be on the attack. It would be the fakir versus the coward-and, probably, a majority would take the fakir.
The developing Kerry debacle extends beyond a simple TV ad. While George Bush has been hard at work firing up his base support by advocating a marriage amendment to the Constitution, Mr. Kerry has taken another tack-he is trying to discourage his base. His astonishing avowal that, if he knew then what he knows now about weapons of mass destruction, etc., he still would have voted for the war, has had about the same effect on his hard-core supporters as an announcement by George Bush that he is in favor of abortion rights would have on his. If only by silent deception, Mr. Kerry should have understood that he must give his own workers some reason to think that, if elected, he would not be Bush lite.
Mr. Kerry’s critique of Mr. Bush’s war and foreign policy has been fumbling, ambiguous, unfocused and unconvincing. He gives the impression of a politician who is hiding his real intentions-which, if one can smell them out, are to walk the same path as Mr. Bush, but with the lame promise of getting more help in Iraq from NATO or the E.U. That, however, is transparent buncombe. Making nicey-nicey is not going to get French or Belgian or German politicians to send their people into the desert to get picked off by snipers and roadside bombs.
It makes tactical political sense for Mr. Kerry not to attack the Iraq war head on, as the Howard Dean people might like, but a candidate has got to say something more than “Me, too.” “Me, too” never got anybody elected, and the war is too big to be skipped over. Mr. Kerry has got to say something about it that is strong, clear and different from what George Bush says, and that will not alienate the lukewarms in the quivering middle.
One public position which fulfills these requirements is the argument that Mr. Bush has no plan to win the war against terrorism, only to endure it indefinitely. The war strategy is blundering overseas and posting a guard in front of every bridge, dock, pipeline, chemical plant, courthouse, office building, etc., in the country. Since homeland security is a political-patronage mill and a cash cow for crony corporations, in a pinch you may be sure half of these “first responders” will screw it up. The costs of our kind of homeland security to business must add one more competitive drag on an economy which falls farther behind in the world-trade race every year.
Mr. Kerry should be saying that there is no security in George Bush’s security program. Does Mr. Bush think he can keep terrorists out of the United States? Let Mr. Kerry remind us that Mr. Bush cannot keep out thousands of tons of cocaine and tens of thousands of Mexicans. If he can’t do that, how is he ever going to stop a couple of dozen terrorists?
Mr. Kerry must repeat and continue to repeat that only an end to the war, a victory or even a negotiated compromise will make the homeland secure. He should be saying that Mr. Bush’s policies mean that for years to come, no American-particularly no American abroad-will feel safe. Mr. Bush is promising a perpetual terror threat, a permanent code-red life for Americans wherever they are. The irony is that without victory, without a clear end to hostilities, without a peace, then even when there is no danger, we will not know it and will be doomed to live in fear under the Bush approach.
Mr. Kerry should be demanding that, instead of saying how long and hard the war against terror is, Mr. Bush ought to be telling us how he is going to win it. Rather than going for the win, George Bush is playing for a tie. Fighting the terrorists to a standstill is not going to make us safe and secure. As long as new terrorists are being recruited and fitted up for attacks, America will not sleep soundly-least of all when we realize that Mr. Bush has entrusted our safety to that bunch of unprepossessing persons he has hired to search our luggage at the airport. Under the Bush plan, we can look forward to worrying about whether his second-rate first responders are up to keeping us alive.
Mr. Kerry must separate himself from Mr. Bush. He has chosen not to do it by attacking Mr. Bush for having invaded Iraq, so he had better find another way of distinguishing himself from his opponent. That way is to go after Mr. Bush for his no-win, war-forever strategy. He should be asking every day and at the top of his voice: “When is the war going to end?” He should be shouting at George Bush, “You may think hunkering down in your bunker and having us cowering in our sealed, poison-gas-proof plastic tents is sufficient for the indefinite future, but it is not. So if you cannot end it, Mr. Bush, get out and give the job to a man who can.”