His Own Fault: John Kerry's Failure
- by Igor Volsky
John Kerry has lost his bid for the presidency. To most Democrats who, expecting a Kerry victory, were confirming their celebration-party catering, the loss was a major disappointment. But President Bush had been confident all along. When asked if he had any doubts about winning a second term, Bush would fiercely shake his head from side to side with the conviction of a two-year-old refusing to eat his broccoli.
Throughout the election, I had been quick to dismiss the president's confidence as arrogance; convinced that his policies had alienated so many Americans that his defeat was inevitable. But this election was not decided by the issues. Instead, the vote turned into a referendum on gay marriage and Kerry's service in Vietnam.
When Kerry became the "likely Democratic nominee" in March/April 2004, the Bush campaign, although disappointed that they could not run against Howard Dean (according to a Newsweek article, Karl Rove- confident that the president would be facing Dean in the general election-had already assembled an anti-Dean "binder" and had commissioned several anti-Dean ads), had already profiled Kerry as a flip-flopping liberal. This characterization formed the echo chamber through which all other issues were discussed, and before Kerry could even get through a stump speech, (and we know how long that takes ...) he had been defined-in their terms, not his.
Recognizing this, Kerry did what he thought was most logical-he spoke of his service in Vietnam. In fact, thinking back on the campaign, Kerry's only memorable line was Vietnam-related: "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty!" (Originally, Kerry planned to open the speech with "I'm John Kerry and I approve this message"). At the time, this opening was thought to have been effective. But in retrospect, it is clear that it served as a diversion; from that point on, the election turned into a referendum on John Kerry's character rather than on George Bush's policies. With that opening, Kerry identified himself as a Vietnam veteran running for president, instead of a candidate with plausible alternatives to Bush's failed policies who happened to have been in Vietnam.
In fact, the most powerful message for change was outsourced to P. Diddy, while Kerry juggled with "The Real Deal," "Stronger at Home, Respected Around the World," "Wrong War, Wrong Place, Wrong Time," and "A Fresh Start." Some candidates use slogans as filler for policy gaps. But this was not true in Kerry's case. In fact, the senator from Massachusetts had plausible alternatives for everything from healthcare to the war on terror, but he could never effectively communicate anything (beyond "we have better hair") in simple terms.
Meanwhile, the Bush campaign used referendums on gay marriage (strategically, in key swing states) to motivate thousands of moderate to conservative voters to vote in their favor. This was Bush's version of "Vote or Die." And Kerry, instead of shifting the debate to more substantive policy issues, invoked Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter and thus only accentuated the issue.
Then in October, after three impressive debate performances, Kerry's poll numbers began to pick up. But by then, it was too little, too late. The Bush campaign had long since defined the senator, and he was never able to break out of its framework. Instead, by spouting seemingly contradictory rhetoric and elaborating endlessly during his stump speeches, (Kerry's speeches silenced cheering crowds) Kerry only added more fuel to their fire. Thus, plagued by indecision, and without charisma, a clear message, or an impressive legislative record, the Kerry campaign was simply no match for the well-oiled Republican machine. As one Kerry aide put it, "If the Republicans were half as good at running the country as they are at running a campaign, we would be much better off."
Igor Volsky is an undergraduate student at Marist College and the host of Political-Thought, a public affairs program airing every Friday from 4-6 p.m. on WMAR Marist Radio, 1630 AM or at www.maristradio.com. He can be contacted at Igor.Volsky@marist.edu