Now I remember why I liked Howard Dean so much.
When will Democrats learn? The Grand Old Party of respectable
mainstream conservatives like Gerry Ford or Howard Baker has now
morphed completely and irretrievably into the Greasy Oily Party of Lee
Atwater, Karl Rove and Bushes I and II.
Apparently John Kerry didn't get the memo. He should have a little
chat with the remains of Messrs. Dukakis, McCain, Gore and Cleland.
How Kerry failed to see the events of the last week coming is as
unfathomable as it is inexcusable. How he allowed two Vietnam dodgers
turn a war hero into a question mark with hardly a rebuttal suggests
that he may be in way over his head in this campaign.
For anyone who hasn't figured it out yet, the Republican Party has
become nothing short of a kleptocracy, which will now do anything to
gain and keep power. That may include stealing an election, or
impeaching a sitting president for a minor sex scandal. It certainly
includes using racism, religious prejudice, national security scares
and outrageous distortions to smear opposing candidates.
How is it that Kerry didn't see this coming, especially after the four
Bush League victims above were so notoriously thrashed by this ugly
cartel? The events of the last week suggest an ineptness at grand
strategy perhaps rivaled only by Bush's invasion of Iraq while America
is at war with al Qaeda.
This year, however, Kerry carries a heavy burden on his shoulders. It
is not too much to say that the fate of the planet will be determined
by the vote of November 2nd. Maybe Kerry goes off to join Dukakis and
Gore in the unhappy pasture lands of public policy graduate seminars
if he loses, but the rest of us are stuck with his failures. More is
arguably at stake for the country and the planet now than in any
election in American history.
It's not too late, but the Kerry campaign must act now to anticipate
Bush assaults and turn them against the G.O.Creeps. And, above all,
he must take off the kid gloves and start knocking on the defensive an
administration with the most indefensible record imaginable. It is
time for Democrats to start defining Republicans, rather than
The alternative will be repeated iterations of what has just
transpired: the Bush camp makes the most outrageous assertions
against Kerry, who lamely, tardily and ineffectively responds with
indignation, whereupon the Bush camp insinuates that Kerry is
psychologically unbalanced, while the false accusations meanwhile
stick in the minds of at least some of the public and Kerry loses
This will require some serious strategic thinking on the part of the
Kerry campaign, which so far seems frighteningly absent. In the
meantime, the following (all of which should have occurred long ago,
and may now be too late to be effective) may provide a helpful
* Like modern wars, modern campaigns are won by gaining air supremacy. In politics, this means framing the debate and
defining yourself and your opponent on your terms. If you can get
people to call them tax cuts rather than the tax transfers (from rich
to poor, and from this generation to the next) they really are, you've
won the battle before it starts and the other team might as well go
home. If you can make it a war on terror (which, after all, is a
weapon not an enemy), as opposed to al Qaeda, then you can justify a
pre-planned war on Iraq which has nothing whatever to do with its
* Bush has a proven record as a dirty candidate. Kerry and his surrogates need to make this point over and over, citing the
cases of Dukakis, McCain and Cleland, until it becomes part of the
public's conventional wisdom, and is handled as such by the media. In
addition to diminishing Bush's personal appeal (which, for some
inexplicable reason, is his strongest selling point), this will also
make it extremely difficult for the Bush camp to sleaze Kerry for the
duration of the campaign. Besides, it happens to be completely true
that Bush is the scummiest politician of his generation. That the
public does not have this perception of him already represents an
utter failure in the air war by the Kerry forces, and a remarkable
marketing achievement on the part of Karl Rove.
* Likewise, Kerry should establish in the public mind, through repetition, that Bush is running a negative campaign. There
are plenty of factual data and media reports to substantiate that the
vast majority of Bush ads are attacks on Kerry. Kerry ads should
establish this point and then ask the simple but profound question,
why is an incumbent president not running on his record? Why doesn't
the president tout his success at creating new American jobs? Um,
well, oops, he is the only president since Herbert Hoover to lose jobs
on his watch. Why doesn't the president talk about how he has paid
down the national debt? Uh, well there's a little problem there.
This could be a series of ads, highlighting a long list of Bush
failures, including environmental issues, No Child Left Behind, the
Patriot Act, the prescription drug bill, nuclear Iran and North Korea,
alienation of traditional American allies, trade deficits, gasoline
prices, etc., etc. The list is endless - why isn't Kerry attacking
the target rich zone of Bush's record?
* The most urgent task is to inoculate Kerry against the damage looming directly around corner at the Republican convention.
It is completely transparent that Rove put the convention in New York
in part to replicate Chicago 1968, and the Left is obligingly
preparing to do its part assisting in the further destruction of the
Kerry campaign. Kerry must urgently and frequently broadcast his
opposition to violent protest, disassociate himself from the same,
blame Bush for dividing America, and do all this now.
* The other crucial bit of inoculation concerns the prospect of an October Surprise. In 1980, the Reagan camp lived in
deathly fear that Jimmy Carter would use a foreign policy ploy in the
last days of the election to rally support around the flag and pull
out a win. Carter, of course, was far too moral a man to have gamed
national security policy for his own political benefit. Bush and
Rove, of course, would not hesitate in the least. Cubans, Syrians and
Democrats, are you listening? The Reagan camp expertly preempted any
such possibility by talking about it loudly, frequently and early, so
that had Carter in fact done this, the ground would have been
pre-paved to make it appear a cynical political ploy. The Kerry
people must do the same, starting yesterday.
* Next, Kerry must turn the tables on this Vietnam thing. Everybody has missed the central fact about Bush's record. It's
abysmal that somebody who has sent a thousand Americans to their death
on the basis of lies used his father's connections to avoid his
generation's war, then didn't even show up for cushy Guard duty, and
continues to this day to block access to his records while lying (yet
again!) in promising to release them all. Nevertheless, Bush
continues to effectively play hide and seek over these issues. The
point that should be pressed, around which the White House will
perhaps never be able to dance, concerns the induction form he filled
out, where he explicitly declined to request overseas duty. Nothing
could be clearer than that this coward sends other people's kids to
fight wars for his political benefit, while neither he nor his running
mate put themselves in harm's way when their country called. Nothing
could be clearer than the contrast with John Kerry, who could have
played the same game, but instead went and risked life and limb. It's
time to say it.
* Bush has been the most controversial, and yet the most insulated, president in modern times. Not only has he held fewer
(and more contrived) press conferences than any other presidents, even
his staged Q-and-A events on the campaign trail exclude everyone but
avid supporters, with the Secret Service ejecting Democrats and other
unwanted creatures. Kerry should call Bush out, challenging him to
repeated sessions in which he can defend his record before real
Americans asking real questions of the candidates. Kerry should play
the Bush game and taunt his manhood and courage to force pseudo-macho
Bush's hand. Over and over he should ask, "What is the president
afraid of?", until it also becomes part of the public's conventional
wisdom and the media's implicit framing of Bush.
* Finally, the Kerry campaign should also borrow a page from Bush campaigns present and past, and start describing Bush using
terms like unbalanced, desperate, unhinged, etc., when he and his
campaign show any emotion at all reacting to Kerry's offensives.
Reports coming out of the White House suggest that this is precisely
true anyhow, and that the carefully crafted image of a cool and
determined Bush as president is an absurd facade.
There is no excuse for the Kerry campaign to have been so ill-prepared
for the Bush garbage machine. It is has now been previewed in
multiple campaigns over the last two decades, and a devastating
preemptive strategy should have been implemented months ago.
It is worth remembering that in 1988 Dukakis came out of the summer
with a commanding lead over Bush Senior, who then proceeded to eat him
for lunch, all while Dukakis looked on. It may not be too late for
another Massachusetts liberal to avoid the same fate, but it certainly
will be if he doesn't start swinging now.
David Michael Green (firstname.lastname@example.org) is assistant professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.