Thursday, September 16, 2004

Kerry's Strategic Pickle

I've come to enjoy hearing thoughts about the election offered by Democrats lately. And it's not just because I enjoy seeing them twist in the wind over their lame candidate, and the defeat they're starting to realize is coming in November. I think Kerry doesn't have a coherent strategy, and I'd be pretty frustrated if he was my guy in this election too. It's interesting to me to see where his fellow Democrats think the Kerry campaign ought to be focusing.

In that vein, there was an interesting article in the Harvard Crimson yesterday (And what was I doing reading the Harvard Crimson you ask? Trying to put on airs by toting around the accoutrements of the Ivy League? That's betrays such an obsolete, dead-tree press mentality. I got a link to the article from Free Republic like any respectable pajama-clad, right-wing nut-job.).

It wasn't the writer's overall point that caught my attention (it's more blah-blah, Kerry-needs-to-go-negative babble). What caught me were the specifics of where he thought Bush was vulnerable, because they seemed fairly representative of the views of a lot of Democrats.

The salient points are here:

Rather than challenge the president with a slew of obvious and legitimate criticisms—a costly war fought on what now appear to be false pretenses, an economy in recession, a nation hemorrhaging jobs, a $400 billion budget deficit...

Since Kerry has actually made each and every one of these criticisms, we'll charitably assume the point is about not focusing on them rather than simply not bringing them up (though it's tempting to wonder whether this is an evidence that even Democrats are unable to follow Kerry's statements). Attacking Bush on these specific issues seems both "obvious and legitimate" to a lot of Democrats. But let's examine them, and see how well they'd serve Kerry:

A. "a costly war fought on what now appear to be false pretenses"

I'm guessing our young friend didn't see the Republican convention, so let me sum it up for him. Republicans are perfectly happy - practically to the point of taunting Kerry - to make this election about the war. Even leaving aside the fact that Republicans easily outpoll Democrats on issues of war and security, when Kerry said "I actually voted for the $87 billion, before I voted against it," he forever entangled Iraq with his "flip-flop" self-image. Kerry focusing his campaign here is electoral suicide.

B. "an economy in recession"

A hard sell, considering that it isn't true. The economy has been expanding, at times quite rapidly, for several quarters in a row now. You'd think a Harvard guy would realize this especially considering that his next point....

C. "a nation hemorrhaging jobs"

... was the talking point the Dems picked up when they finally had to admit the economy was in recovery. Remember all the ink spilled on the "jobless recovery?" Except that line had to be tweaked when jobs (outside of election years commonly agreed to be a lagging indicator of economic recovery) started showing up. Now the issue has decended into typical economic wonkery, and if Kerry thinks he can mold that into a compelling case to elect him, let him try.

Taking issues B. and C. out of their specifics and into the more general area of going after Bush on the economy probably is one of Kerry's best chances, no matter what the specific economic situation is. It would allow him to play to the Democratic Party's perceived strengths, in a way war and security issues don't. The danger, of course, is that the general economy is trending positive, and sounding pessimistic against that backdrop is exactly where Mondale got clobbered by Reagan in '84. And it looks like the Republicans are already lying in wait to pick up that economic optimism club again this year.

D. "a $400 billion budget deficit"

Have they forgotten that they nominated John Kerry, not Ross Perot? This would be a very challenging case for Kerry to make with any effectiveness. It's pretty easy to rebut by pointing to the huge increased spending proposals Kerry has been promising. The Republicans are already locked and loaded for this.

And that only covers Kerry trying to win the "swing" voters. Dick Morris points to polling that suggests he might be in trouble bringing some of this stuff up with his own party members (at least on matters of foerign policy and terrorism).

This sort of thing is making me realize what a pickle Kerry is in. It's not simply that the guy can't focus. It's that every direction he might turn carries a downside for Kerry at least as plausibly as it does for Bush.

I think a lot of Democrats are putting their last great hope into the debates. But debates are going to force both candidates to talk specifics. To my admittedly partisan eyes the Bush team looks set to pounce on Kerry a hundred different ways as soon as that happens. And in a couple of them, he has to watch his back for daggers from his own side.

No wonder Kerry prefers to talk about Vietnam.


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