As Race Returns To Normal, Kerry Focuses on Message
The Post’s Jim VandeHei puts forward a story today that I think accurately reflects the challenges facing the Kerry campaign. VandeHei’s thesis is that Kerry’s inability so far to identify and hammer 3-4 themes for dumping Bush is causing some concern among Democrats, who think that Kerry needs to do better in articulating a message for why he should replace Bush. This is nothing new around here, where many of you have read me make the same complaint for a long time now. In Kerry’s defense, VandeHei points out that the Kerry camp is aware of this, and plans to focus on message development between now and the convention. The story also points out that the campaign is aware that Kerry will get several opportunities to make his case anew: the naming of a running mate, at the convention, and at the debates this fall.
It should also be pointed out that Kerry is running a “Last Man Standing” campaign, where he hopes to convince people towards the end of the race that he is a credible and better prepared alternative to lead the country during the next four years than the incumbent. The media is also seeing Kerry now as someone who wants more contact with the public, and these types of stories can only help someone who is labeled as being aloof and detached from real people. But there are several other issues that may break in Kerry’s favor.
First, the issues themselves will help. As we near the transition to limited Iraqi sovereignty, the violence will get worse and stay worse possibly well after June 30. It doesn’t help that we still haven’t provided for basic needs in Iraq like electricity and security, nor will the prison abuse scandal and cover-up go away. As necessary and welcome as the transfer is, it won’t escape voters’ attention that we are still stuck over there with over 130,000 of our sons and daughters in a shooting gallery as a result of a war of choice not necessity. And although the economy is getting better, Bush is not getting credit for it yet because many still do not see improvement, and the jobs that are replacing those lost are lesser paying at a time of high gas prices, rising health care costs, and other inflation.
Second, Kerry will name a running mate in early July, and indications are that the selection is now down to Iowa governor Tom Vilsack and John Edwards. Although Vilsack is being a good trooper for Kerry, the simple facts are these: Senate Democrats and prospective candidates this fall all want Edwards, and Edwards is very popular everywhere he goes. Frankly, if Kerry picks Edwards he wins. If he picks Vilsack, he loses. It’s that simple.
Third, the Bush team themselves appears to have a problem figuring out which issues they want to run on. The cupboard of acceptable issues, after you hear the gloating about the economy and Iraq, gets pretty bare according to Bob Novak. Part of Bush’s team wants to run on Social Security, and another part knows that this can be political poison. Aside from the necessary debate we need to have in this country about Social Security and Medicare, I will say without a trace of regret that Kerry should bludgeon Bush every chance he gets on Social Security and Medicare. Would such attacks be demagogic? Sure. Are they critical in a political campaign where so much is at stake? You bet. And making yourself out to be Ronald Reagan’s heir won’t work either and has risks.
Fourth, voters still do not know a lot about Kerry, even that he is a Catholic, and Kerry already runs even with Bush amongst Catholics. Since Bush and Rove have already dumped nearly $100 million into smearing Kerry on every available topic and have only an even race to show for it, you can argue credibly that Kerry has seen the floor and can only go up from here as his bio spots and the comparisons between him and Bush become more and more clear.
So as Kerry works over the coming weeks to fine tune 3-4 themes for replacing Bush, let’s keep in mind that as much as some of us, me included, wish that Kerry had run this campaign differently and was 8-10 points ahead right now, he in fact is in good shape.