Flip-Flop Politics

GENERIC President Bush and John Kerry
AP / CBS
This column from The New Republic was written by Noam Scheiber.

After more than a month of treating the coming Kerry-Bush match-up as a snoozer for the president, last week the nation's media woke up to the realization that Kerry might have a shot at winning after all. As documented by ABC's The Note, elite opinion seemed to shift when a combination of bad news (anemic job growth, pessimism about finding WMDs in Iraq, the upwardly revised cost of the recent "Medicare reform" bill) and White House missteps (the president's uninspiring performances during the State of the Union and on "Meet the Press," the apparent stonewalling of the 9/11 commission) gave the Kerry campaign an opening it quickly seized.

But, in retrospect, maybe the conventional wisdom on the presidential campaign shifted a little too quickly. As Karl Rove bragged yesterday to an audience of conservative activists, this week the Bush campaign regained much of the initiative it appeared to lose in the aftermath of the Democratic primaries. More importantly, that's a development that seems much more indicative of the campaign to come. Why more indicative? Because while Bush's early setbacks stemmed from a relatively fleeting set of circumstances -- including the Bush camp's surprise at the sudden, post-Iowa change in Kerry's fortunes -- Kerry's stem from a series of disadvantages more or less baked into the electoral cake.

One of Kerry's bigger problems is the difference between the two candidates' gut-level instincts. Bush in his natural state is an anti-intellectual cowboy: heavy on bravado, light on nuance. When he lets slip what he's really thinking -- like his ill-advised "bring it on" comment from last year -- and that comment gets repeated by political opponents, it probably alienates half the country, but it galvanizes the other half and ends up a wash. Kerry at his most authentic is a committed internationalist -- someone who values the stability of alliances over the freedom of unilateral action. There's nothing wrong with this position per se. Except that, when expressed in a single, unguarded comment capable of being distorted by political opponents, it probably alienates considerably more than half the voting public.

I'm obviously thinking here of Kerry's recent line about having met with "more leaders" rooting for him to beat Bush. (More than what? Unclear.) In addition to the very real possibility that the statement isn't true -- a possibility Bush and his surrogates have used to raise questions about Kerry's honesty -- it gives the Bush campaign an opportunity to invoke its most potent wedge issue: the perception that Democrats can't be trusted to defend American interests in the face of foreign opposition. (One Bush commercial has already accused Kerry of wanting to "delay defending America until the United Nations approved.") As Dick Cheney said in response to Kerry's remark on Tuesday, "We are the ones who get to determine the outcome of this election, not unnamed foreign leaders." Bottom line: Assuming the two candidates are equally likely to commit gaffes, the fallout from Kerry's gaffes is going to be more damaging.

Worse, the "more leaders" flap exposes a second weakness of the Kerry campaign: While its rapid response apparatus has capitalized on the Bush campaign's early mistakes -- in my mind, the Kerry people did a tremendous job scoring points on Bush's tacky 9/11 ad -- this machinery has proved less effective on defense. The problem is that the point of a rapid response strategy isn't just to offer some response -- any response -- when the candidate is attacked, so long as it's quick. The point is to offer a response that effectively deadens the issue -- a goal sometimes better accomplished without the over-the-top, war-room approach that's been the Kerry campaign's only speed to date.

During the "more leaders" contretemps, for example, the Kerry camp's response was to claim that what Kerry had actually said ("more leaders") was much more vague than the quote that first appeared in newspapers ("foreign leaders") -- so much so that, according to Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter, the phrase could have referred to "anybody, here at home, abroad, anybody." (This was at odds with the context of Kerry's comment, which clearly indicated he was talking about foreigners.) And, oh yeah, the campaign also trotted out Democratic foreign policy luminaries like Bill Richardson, Richard Holbrooke, and Madeleine Albright to argue, as Holbrooke did, "It's so obviously the truth what Kerry said, and the Republicans are just having fun with it." Shockingly, none of this proved very effective at making the issue go away. Unfortunately, things only get worse from here on out: Kerry, by virtue of his long voting record in the Senate, is going to be playing a lot of defense.

Kerry's third structural weakness is that having a reputation for being both a liberal and a flip-flopper is a combustible combination: Whatever you do to rebut one charge just confirms the other. Take gay marriage. In the past Kerry has tended to stake out relatively liberal terrain on the issue -- for example, he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. This would seem to put him to the left of the average swing voter, a position that could be exploited by the Bush campaign. So how would Kerry insulate himself from this kind of attack? The only way that comes to mind is by moving rightward -- which Kerry did earlier this year when he hinted he might support an amendment to the Massachusetts constitution banning gay marriage. In one fell swoop Kerry transformed himself from a liberal on gay marriage to ... a flip-flopper on gay marriage.

Of course, polls consistently put gay marriage at the bottom of voters' lists of concerns. The question is whether the same dynamic would apply to something closer to the top of those lists -- say, national security. Kerry provided a tentative answer Tuesday in West Virginia. Responding to a Bush ad thrashing him for voting against last year's $87 billion supplemental for Iraq and Afghanistan, Kerry managed an impressive trifecta of ineffectiveness: "I actually did vote for his $87 billion, before I voted against it," Kerry told a crowd of veterans at Marshall University, before going on to explain that the version he voted for would have been paid for by repealing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans. Which is to say, Kerry's first instinct was to move rightward ("I actually did vote for his $87 billion"), his second instinct was to strive for consistency ("...before I voted against it), and his third instinct was to retreat into the kind of inside-the-beltway legislative-ese that got him into so much trouble last summer and fall.

Which brings us to Kerry's final structural disadvantage: For all the talk about various Democratic-leaning 527s (that is, independent nonprofits) helping to balance out Bush's huge financial advantage, Tuesday's showdown in West Virginia showed why nothing beats good old-fashioned hard money when it comes to waging a presidential campaign. Before Kerry could touch down in West Virginia, the Bush campaign had saturated the airwaves with the aforementioned weak-on-national-security commercial -- which framed the debate for Kerry's West Virginia trip in terms most favorable to Bush. By contrast, because none of the 527s trying to help Kerry can coordinate their message with his campaign (at least not legally), Bush is much less likely to face such focused debate-framing when he touches down in the swing states he's targeting.

Kerry sympathizers will respond that this kind of analysis reads way too much into what was, after all, only one week. Would that they were right. But a simple look at some recent polling data suggests that's unlikely. Several weeks of favorable coverage during the Democratic primaries and a couple of months of White House missteps had conspired to give Kerry a statistically significant lead over Bush in most polls by late February. This week, a New York Times/CBS Newspoll showed Kerry suffering a 10-point net reversal in his favorable/unfavorable ratings since that time. Maybe that's the kind of thing that happens even to fundamentally strong candidates when they suffer a couple of bad days. But, given the speed and size of the turnaround, the numbers seem far more likely to suggest that Kerry is settling into his natural equilibrium. Unfortunately for Democrats, that's not the one that has him winning in November.

Noam Scheiber is an associate editor at TNR.

By Noam Scheiber
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