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By David Podvin
During most of the last half-century, the Democratic Party has done poorly in presidential elections. Subsequent to the retirement of Harry Truman, the party’s record is five wins in thirteen tries. The reason for the bad performance of the last few decades is not ideological – polls have consistently shown that the Democratic philosophy is preferred by most voters. The problem has to do with the personality of the candidates. Democrats have often nominated passive men to run against ruthless men, and in such contests the results have been entirely predictable.
Since 1948, the Democrats have selected just three presidential candidates who were by nature highly competitive, ultra-driven, socially maladjusted barbarians: John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Bill Clinton. These are men of many virtues, but early in life each of them adopted the worldview that equates losing with being worthless. As a result, they eschewed the Marquis of Queensbury rules and campaigned with no holds barred. Not coincidentally, their collective record against the GOP was four wins and no losses.
Over the same period, the Democrats have also nominated seven kind, decent, well adjusted, highly civilized men to be the standard bearers of the party. Their collective record was 1-8, and they would have been completely shut out had Gerald Ford not pardoned Richard Nixon. Unless John Kerry can get in touch with his inner Manson, the record of the nice guys will soon go to 1-9.
George W. Bush has chosen to make the race a referendum on the weakness of his opponent. The Bush campaign is constantly reinforcing the message that Kerry is too weak to lead the nation during perilous times; at the GOP Convention, the recurring theme was that the senator is ridiculously feeble. The bad news for Kerry is that if the message is allowed to go unchallenged, he will lose. The good news is that, with Bush lacking a record of positive accomplishment and forced to make his opponent the issue, Kerry now controls the outcome of the race.
It is easy for a candidate to convince voters that he is not weak, assuming that he isn’t – all he has to do is mercilessly pummel his opponent, and the charge of softness loses all credibility. Therefore, making the accusation of weakness carries with it a grave risk for the accuser. By basing the campaign on the allegation that Kerry is anemic, Bush has left himself wide open to being bludgeoned in the same way that his father trounced Michael Dukakis.
Bush I was tarred by Democrats as a wimp, but he turned the slur to his advantage by running a dirty campaign against Dukakis, who was then put in the untenable position of claiming to be persecuted by a weenie. Bush II could have argued that Kerry is a vicious attack dog, but opted to go the other end of the spectrum and accuse the senator of being a gerbil. It is now too late to change that charge – Bush will sink or swim with it.
This leaves Kerry in the driver’s seat. The senator now has great latitude to run an attack campaign, because Bush will ruin his own stated premise if he claims that Kerry is playing too rough. It is a valid political rule of thumb that the candidate who is complaining about smear tactics is losing the race. Thus far, Kerry has been the one whimpering over hardball politics - in order to win, he must now embrace the concept and make Bush whimper.
Viewing the campaign as a game of sequential anticipation similar to chess, the progression should go as follows:
Kerry accuses the incumbent of being morally unfit to hold public office, and cites as confirming evidence the numerous Bush lies about the war, tax cuts, energy policy, stem cell research, and education.
Bush screams bloody murder, accusing Kerry of practicing the vilest form of politics of personal destruction.
Kerry responds by recasting himself as John Wayne: “There is no crying in politics, just as there is no crying in war. Mr. Bush accuses me of being too tough, and maybe I am, but that is why Al-Qaida will regret the day I replace him as president. I killed three-dozen of the enemy in Vietnam, not with any sense of glee, but because my assignment was to defend our country. When I become president, I will treat the terrorists the same way I treated the Viet Cong.”
Well over ninety percent of Americans have already chosen sides in this election, and the voters who remain undecided are non-ideological. They do not follow politics closely, but they feel obligated to cast their ballots, and do so based on a general perception of the candidates. They vote for the man, not the policies. They liked Reagan and they liked Clinton.
Swing voters are less than thrilled with Bush, but they are willing to give him another four years in the event that the alternative seems unacceptably dangerous, which explains the all-out GOP attempt to emasculate Kerry. The undecided segment of the electorate knows Kerry is smart and experienced, but remains unconvinced that he is tough enough to lead their nation. If the senator can convince them that he is strong, they are willing to make him president. Otherwise, they will hold their noses and keep what they have. Whether Kerry can clear this low hurdle is going to determine the outcome of the election and the future of our democracy… everything else (other than vote fraud) is basically irrelevant.
The problem is that the senator is an analytical man caught in a situation that will punish thoughtful reflection. The people he needs to persuade are not on the same intellectual wavelength with him. Many extensive academic studies have been done regarding the identity and mental processes of Americans who have great difficulty deciding which presidential candidate to support, but as Confucius noted, a picture is worth a thousand words:
In order to address the one major concern that such citizens have about voting for him, Kerry must reach deep within and summon the bad ass who ruthlessly killed other human beings in the jungles of Southeast Asia. This will be hard for him to do because that tough guy has been internally exiled for decades, superceded by the kind of somber, phlegmatic intellectual who makes the Homer Simpsons of America want to pull out whatever hair they have left.
Football coaches frequently scream at their players, “Stop thinking and just hit somebody!” That needs to be Kerry’s motto through Election Day. He has passed the intelligence test and now confronts the testosterone exam. The senator must project strength at all times. Remembering the target demographic, Kerry’s catchphrases have to become shorter and tougher. “Kill Al-Qaida”. “Slash the Bush deficit”. “Stomp out the Bush corruption”.
Kerry would be well advised to adopt the Newt Gingrich technique of describing himself as “strong” and “tough” while referring to his opponent as “incompetent” and “unfit”. He must say these things over and over again to the point of mind-numbing tedium. It is through constant repetition that the message is successfully inculcated into the brains of swing voters who tend not to retain subtle concepts or infrequently voiced sentiments. This kind of patronizing approach was anathema to highly intelligent people like Adlai Stevenson and Al Gore, but the alternative was defeat.
Having blown a lead in the polls, John Kerry is now perfectly positioned to win the election. Doubtlessly through ineptitude rather than any Machiavellian genius, the senator has allowed himself to be portrayed as painfully weak and woefully ineffectual. During the remainder of the campaign, the challenge for Kerry is to behave at variance with that grotesque caricature. If he does, George W. Bush is screwed.
If not, the rest of us are.
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