Gut-Check Time for Kerry

Pummeled for weeks by Bush & Co., he's now being pelted with lots of advice -- mostly bad. But the woozy Dem can still prevail

By Lee Walczak

For John Kerry, August has been the cruelest month. The Democrat was pummeled over Vietnam and national security by the White House message machine, then he saw President George W. Bush confound predictions of a "bounceless" GOP convention by rolling out of New York City with a double-digit lead.

Now, the inevitable is happening: Kerry is being deluged with unsolicited advice from panicky fellow Democrats and is signing up new political hands at a dizzying pace. He would do well to take a few of the suggestions to heart, discard the rest as witless, and soldier on. No one said upending a canny Presidential incumbent would be easy.

GENETIC PREDISPOSITION?

  It's instructive to put the Presidential struggle in perspective, which means segmenting the campaign into major engagements. The first big battle was the summer air war, a paid advertising blitz fought in battleground states. Aided by independent "527" committees, Kerry fought the President to a tie in total spending and established himself as a credible candidate with a stronger message on the economy than the incumbent.

But Bush, by pounding away at Kerry's alleged genetic predisposition for flip-flops, sowed the seeds of doubt about his challenger's character. Slight advantage Bush.

The second encounter was the month-long duel of the political party conventions. Kerry used his to construct a motif of resolute national service, starting and ending with his two tours of duty in Vietnam. From his conclave, Bush reestablished his compassionate conservative credentials and reinforced his alleged penchant for big, bold reforms. In a convention-capping speech that was a mini-State of the Union, he unfurled sweeping Ownership Society reforms that are totally beyond his reach in budgetary or political terms -- but which sounded rhetorically appealing layered into a big-think address.

ROUND THREE IS KEY.

  Not only did more people (some 2 million more) watch Bush's remarks than tuned in to Kerry's Apocalypse Now show in Boston, the President's decision to offer policy details seems to have moved the dial in his direction. Significant advantage Bush.

Sounds pretty grim for Kerry, right? While no one should minimize the hole the Massachusetts senator finds himself in, he still has a shot at an upset win. That's because Round Three of the election battle is the most important -- the fall policy debates.

Voters are so repulsed by the normal low-blow followed by lower-blow dynamic of the campaign that they tune in only sporadically before retreating to the comfort of their private lives. They'll refocus on the race later this month during a series of policy debates. Bush hasn't agreed to participate yet, but after some ritual sparring, he's likely to assent to two or three debates.

INFO-HUNGRY VOTERS.

  The conventional wisdom is that Bush, with his sly, just-folks style, will show up Kerry as an insufferable Gore-style fathead. But if the Democrat is careful not to come off as supercilious and condescending, he can score by hammering Bush on the Administration's ill-fated Iraq adventure and on the uneven economic recovery.

The Bush high command has found that, more so than in previous elections, voters are intensely information-hungry in 2004. Americans want specifics about issues such as soaring health-care costs, job security, the anti-terror war, and that much-advertised light at the end of the oil pipeline in Iraq.

Bush claims Iraq is on the road to democracy and has promised sweeping Ownership Society programs that are both controversial and beyond his means to deliver. So he's content to campaign wrapped in a flag of patriotism, while leaving it to surrogates to systematically destroy Kerry's character.

HELIUM-PUMPED.

  On the other side, Kerry is running on the promise of a hugely expensive and highly interventionist Middle-Class Safety Net that he claims would create jobs that cannot be generated by government fiat or via tax credits. He has left himself open to character assault by virtue of a long Senate career in which he often sidled up to both sides of an issue.

Voters sizing up Bush and Kerry, two ordinary men whose résumés are pumped with helium, for signs of Churchillian greatness are likely to be disappointed. Citizens will have to navigate through the candidates' morass of misrepresentation to pick a leader for challenging times.

The debates will offer a final opportunity to pass judgment on the incumbent. And despite the CW, it's not a slam-dunk for the White House.

TAKE SOME, LEAVE SOME.

  So what will it take for Kerry to become the Comeback Lieutenant? A quasi-policy wonk with a good grasp of programmatic details, he needs to edge Bush on points in the debates by relentlessly drawing the contrast between "failed" GOP policies and his supposedly better Democratic alternatives. Then he must charge into the battleground states with a head of steam in October and count on the Democrats' potentially superior turnout machine to win the ground war -- and the election -- for him by the slenderest of margins.

This is an uphill fight, by any measure. But it's not a hopeless mission.

What about all that advice that's deluging Kerry in the meantime? It's a very mixed bag, so the candidate should tread cautiously. Let's take it one brainstorm at a time:

Channeling Howard Dean. Reacting to GOP convention speakers such as Georgia renegade Senator Zell Miller, who systematically skewered Kerry, Democrats want their champion to take the gloves off and start calling Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney draft-dodging prevaricators who have no business challenging anyone's valor. But if Kerry goes overboard, he'll be reacting to a sucker punch.

An escalating exchange along these lines could result in some voters feeling that personal attacks are being rained down on the Presidency, an institution they revere. So no matter how disingenuous Bush and Cheney are, Kerry could come out a net loser -- after he succeeds in giving his 30-year-old Vietnam protests even more prominence.

Long, long ago, in a faraway election galaxy, a candidate named Bob Dole angrily confronted another Bush's scurrilous attacks and said: "Stop lying about my record." Guess who won that face-off?

Shake and Bake. It's inevitable when things go badly in a campaign that calls rise for a shakeup. Kerry has himself yielded to this impulse -- with good results -- during his primary bid. But it's far too late in the general election cycle to have a bloodbath now. Yes, Bush's ads are better, and his speechwriters are penning rings around Kerry's crew, but the man from Massachusetts has little choice but to persevere with the lost platoon.

Kerry is making a mistake by air-dropping a new group of flacks onto his team, since it's already top-heavy with world-weary Clinton-Gore veterans, Ted Kennedy retreads, and labor skates. Kerry needs to leave his staff alone for once and place the blame for his troubles squarely where it belongs -- on himself.

The candidate, however, seems to be giving in to calls for emergency reinforcements, ignoring how disruptive such a panicky response will be. Essentially, he now has two high commands -- a Kennedy Mafia built around senior strategist Bob Shrum and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, and a new group of mostly Clinton-era advisers, from super-spinners Joe Lockhart and Paul Begala, to Clinton pollster Stan Greenberg and former Clinton White House aide Joel Johnson.

On the campaign plane, Kerry has leapfrogged Shrum's people and installed John Sasso, a former top hand in the Dukakis campaign. (Message to the candidate: Why not go all the way, Senator, and sign up Karenna Gore.) Kerry is, of course, within his rights to enlist help. But the odds of these two groups working together are slim and none.

Keep Clinton at Bay. Even as the former President was being prepped for his heart-bypass surgery, which was performed on Sept. 6, word came that he had been spending hours on the phone with Kerry, offering detailed advice for rescuing the campaign. (I can just see the scene in the operating room, where Bubba tells the anesthesiologist to hold off for a few minutes, he's gotta get Kerry on the cell phone for one more bit of guidance about campaigning in Youngstown).

Clinton is an acknowledged political master. So what could possibly be wrong about any of this? Well, for one thing, the minute ol' Bill gets off the phone with Kerry, he tells 14 of his friends, who tell 22 reporters, who promptly write that Clinton is calling the shots from afar. We had this dynamic during the Al Gore's late Blue Period, and it wasn't favorable to the former Veep. It similarly diminishes Kerry.

A ponderous JFK-wannabe, Kerry is no Bill Clinton and never will be. What is instinctively simple for Clinton is immeasurably hard for Kerry -- one-on-one empathy. In the long run, Kerry needs to win or lose on his own terms, without backstage coaching from Cousin Bill. At a minimum, he needs to put the lid on the whispers from the Clinton camp. If these guys were as brilliant as they think they are, Wesley Clark would be the Democratic nominee.

Dude, Stop Surfing. To illustrate just how bizarre things are getting in Demo-Land, Kerry finds himself criticized for being pictured wind-surfing off Nantucket on the grounds that he a) looked goofy in his rubber wet suit and b) wind-surfing is an aristocratic pastime that reinforces a Boston Brahmin image.

What should Kerry do, send out for pork rinds and stage a photo op driving an 18-wheeler, a la Bush I? The senator is a high-energy athlete who skis, runs, bikes, plays hockey, sails, and wind surfs. Only when things are going downhill are these pastimes cast as negatives. If Kerry is foolish enough to spend his leisure time bowling in some central Ohio 10-pin palace, he deserves to lose. Better to be yourself, senator -- as long as you keep the Cigarette boat out of sight.

All Economy, All the Time. Sensing that Bush has successfully transformed the debate into a dialogue about the global war on terrorism, Democrats are urging Kerry to get off foreign policy and refocus his campaign on jobs, jobs, jobs. It would be a fatal mistake to take that advice. First off, those jobs are coming back, and unemployment is falling (see BW Online, 9/3/04, "August Jobs: Better Than Good Enough").

Kerry's best issue is the more complex set of social pressures known as the middle-class squeeze, but it can't be his only issue. People want to know what the Democrat would do to extricate the U.S. from the seething mess in Iraq and how he would back up his claims to be more aggressive in the pursuit of al Qaeda.

If Kerry can't nail Bush for cooking up the war to oust Saddam Hussein on essentially false pretenses and then making an unholy hash of the occupation, he has no prayer on Nov. 2, because Iraq is a topic of conversation from one end of this country to the other.

Iraq is too big to be ignored, too menacing to the nation's strategic interests to be relegated to a secondary concern by talk of superior occupation mechanics. Liberal Democrats who run the 527 committees that are helping to bankroll Kerry's campaign want him to reprise the "it's the economy, stupid" theme that worked for Bill Clinton in 1992. That won't work in 2004, and Kerry ought to have the sense to know it.

In coming days, expect these and other suggestions to be lobbed Kerry's way by nervous Democratic partisans. But like most great ideas hatched in the grip of panic, many of the helpful hints are off-base. It will be a gut check for Kerry -- and a real test of his courage under fire -- to see how many of them he shrugs off as he steels for his climactic encounter with Bush.

Walczak is BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief

Edited by Beth Belton

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