A Lesson Before Declining
Steve Soto's article downthread, Zogby Shows A Closer Race Than Others contains an important truth: "Kerry needs to focus on his base... ."
Energizing the base is the key to a Kerry victory before, during, and after the debates. It has been the key to a Kerry victory all along. If it weren't for the very substantial popular opposition to Bush's warmongering policies, ruinous tax cuts, reckless spending, and across-the-board corporate welfare give-ways, reelection of the incumbent president would have been seen as virtually automatic. At the root, it is popular opposition to Bush and his administration's policies that makes Bush's defeat possible. The frustrating mystery is why Kerry hasn't conducted himself accordingly on a consistent basis.
It's worth considering how and why he got to this point. I believe that periodically Kerry's campaign handlers have steered him away from being himself. Only when their strategies are exposed as failures does he cast caution to the wind and revert to being himself. I blame Kerry for listening to the handlers, but I blame the handlers for being so stupid as not to recognize that this election truly is different than any conventional campaign wisdom can comprehend.
1. In Iowa and New Hampshire, for almost all of 2002 and 2003 Kerry deliberately steered a careful, cautious, heavily rehearsed middle course. That ended when he saw late in 2003 that Dean's unrehearsed Bush-bashing, strong anti-war position, and adocacy of national health care were winning the day. Recognizing that his own campaign was floundering, Kerry appeared to walk away from the campaign advisors at last, throw caution to the wind, and become himself. That's when he joined in the vigorous criticism of Bush and his policies. That's when Kerry memorably called Bush's people 'liars' off-mike. That's when Kerry's base became energized. And that's when Kerry came back from the near-dead.
2. By June, when Dean and Edwards were pretty clearly out of the race, Kerry let the campaign strategists back in the door and they did what they always do -- they counseled caution and positioned him in an artificial, take-no-risks middling posture supposedly to appeal to the 'independents' and 'undecideds'. The message began to get muddled and the messenger remained fuzzy and ill-defined for supporters and undecideds alike. To be sure, popularity polls showed Kerry's own numbers improving slightly and Bush steadily descending in virtually all categories. This may well have been misread by Kerry's advisors as confirmation that they were on the right track. If so, it was an interpretation as foolish as it would be to think that the medicine man brought rain when he pranced around in circles. By following the conventional tactical advice of his campaign advisors Kerry largely wasted the summer when he could have had Bush on the ropes and ready to tumble by now.
3. Out of concern that he wasn't yet known well enough by the public (because of the advice from the same yokels who were his advisors), the Kerry campaign made a conscious decision to ignore the base, play nicey-nice about Bush, and use the Democratic convention to 'define' Kerry. Unwisely, they chose that stupid salute as his big introductory moment. It was more like a "Dukakis Snoopy-on-the-tank" moment, as any competent television director could have told them. Incredibly bad theater, even worse politics. (There are times when I wonder just how low the IQ of professional campaign handlers can sink, and why on earth candidates listen to them, much less pay them money. Then again, even George Washington used speech writers and campaign strategists, albeit of the stature of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson -- who, incidentally, did it for free).
4. Whether you agree that the Kerry convention effort was poorly executed or not, post-convention Repubs predictably crawled into their usual sewers with distracting lies, slanders, personal attacks, and other outrages to smear Kerry, his wife, his running mate, and even some horribly injured clients of John Edwards. All of this was intended to divert attention from relevant matters, of course. I repeat: this was predictable. I am sure even Kerry's campaign strategists must have known it was coming.
What perhaps they didn't fully appreciate was how attentive the news outlets would be to any salacious or sensational allegation however far-fetched, and how the defamatory news cycles would go on so much longer than they should have. (All of this is symptomatic of a phenomenon having to do with the preciptious decline of the American press and electronic media, something which needs more space and time to explain than I care to use today.) This, too, could have been predicted. The Kerry camp was slow to understand it and even slower to respond effectively.
5. In the midst of all this renewed dependency on the advice of campaign strategists, Kerry inexplicably had his Grand Canyon moment. I do not know for sure whether this was yet another idiot move recommended by his handlers, as I suspect, or a singular incident when he allowed himself to be himself and honestly answer Bush's ridiculous hypothetical question -- 'knowing what you know now, would you have voted.... " etc. etc.
I say "honest" because Kerry obviously remains convinced he was right on his October 2002 vote. He understands the vote he cast, as the administration was claiming at the time it should be understood, not as a blank check for war against Saddam but in the context of October 2002 as an effective means Senators had for giving "advice and consent" to the president that he should consult with the U.N. and exhaust all diplomatic efforts before proceeding with the military escalation already underway.
It was very naive to expect the media would fairly report the context and content of Kerry's Senate vote. Neither the print press nor the electronic media did its job back then; why be so generous as to expect them to do better now?
I do think good campaign consultants have a role to play but it is a far more limited role than they aspire to when they try to "handle" a candidate's every twitch and talking point. For the most part all candidates, Kerry and certainly Bush among them, depend on them far too much. Media consultants have a role, too, especially when it comes to advising the candidate on how to deal with a mass media whose ethics and acumen are in rapid decline. They also need to be kept in their (limited) place. Neither should be allowed to change the candidate's message, only to help get it out.
Cultivating "our own" Karl Rove, as some have suggested, is not the answer. Beating the Republican Party at its own low games will not lead to a victory worth having. Rejecting the whole concept of "handlers" has more promise.
With what Kerry has learned from the tactical mistakes his campaign has made, as he contemplates the days ahead one hopes he will revert to being himself and use campaign and media consultants as mere tools for getting his chosen substantive message out. If, as I believe, that message is one that resonates with the base that got Kerry nominated in the first place he will win. People will be running to the polls to vote for him.
But if he persists in letting consultants calculate too finely what sort of message he should present to the much balley-hooed "undecideds" then his support will continue to decline. Before the debates, as Steve Soto more or less says, Kerry needs to throw off the yoke of calculated campaign handlers and deliver his truths from the heart. He needs to do that during the debates, too. And afterwards, right up through November 2.
A majority of people know Bush is not competent. A substantial part of those who voted for Bush in 2000 secretly worry he's a knave or a fool. They just need to be reassured that John Kerry is the real thing. Campaign handlers don't do 'real' very well.