This Against the Grain commentary was written by CBSNews.com's Dick Meyer.
Here's the opening sentence of a new report by the Kerry campaign about how awful the economy is:
"Hard working, optimistic Americans expect that a strong economy will strengthen opportunities for middle-income families (emphasis mine)."
This odd locution is ham-handed subliminal seduction typical of contemporary political propaganda. But the agenda is more tortured than usual.
The Kerry campaign wants voters to think the economy stinks so they'll fire George Bush. But his spin wizards don't want the voters to think Sen. John Kerry is part of what Papa Bush used to call the "doom and gloom crowd." So they use the word "optimistic" a lot; and a lot of good it will do them.
The awkward Kerry spin of optimism into a pessimistic economic report is also a response to a Bush-Cheney ad called, believe it or not, "Pessimism." Its text:
President Bush: I'm optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America.
Announcer: After recession, 9/11 and war, now our economy has been growing for ten straight months.
The largest tax relief in history.
1.4 million jobs added since August.
Inflation, interest and mortgage rates low.
John Kerry's response?
He's talking about the Great Depression.
One thing's sure... pessimism never created a job.
This is nothing more than ham-handed overt seduction; there's nothing subliminal about it, just clumsy advertising intended to make Americans believe that John Kerry is a pessimist and not fit to be class president.
The Bush ad is, in turn, a response to a Kerry ad called - you guessed it, "Optimism:"
John Kerry: We're a country of the future. We're a country of optimists. We're the 'can do' people.
Announcer: For John Kerry, a stronger America begins at home. Real plans to create jobs here, not overseas; lower health care costs; independence from Middle East oil. And in the world, a strong military and strong alliances - to defeat terror.
America. Stronger at home. Respected in the world. John Kerry for President.
This entire volley is a puerile contest over who has a bigger optimist.
The whole thing is itself a response to a slice of leftover conventional wisdom: the most optimistic candidate always wins American presidential elections. This wisdom, conventional as it is, may have the added virtue of being true. But maybe not.
Most people would agree that Bush the Younger scored better on the O-ratings than Al Gore, Clinton than Dole, Reagan than anyone. But Dr. Kevorkian was more optimistic than Dick Nixon, who managed two wins. I'd say Gerald Ford was more optimistic than Preacher Carter and I'd probably give the nod to both Stephen Douglas and George McClellan over Abraham Lincoln.
Two points, however, are more important. First: the posturing to be the most optimistic guy in the grade is hollow, insulting and the candidates should be teased and mocked relentlessly for it until they stop. Second: Kerry can't win this battle and engaging in it makes him look like a phony and a cake-and-eat-it candidate, which is his number one problem anyway.
Take this week's economic report as a sample of Kerryitis. The report uses select statistics plucked from select time frames to give the direst possible snapshot of the current economy. It is transparently appealing to the economic insecurity that shows up in public opinion polls.
The only forward-looking solutions in the report are a list of a few warmed-over tax gimmicks, a phony vow to do something about gas prices and vague promises to crack down on dirty corporations, nurture high-tech jobs and make it cheaper to raise kids.
The whole point of the report is to prey on economic insecurity and make Bush look bad. It is a pessimistic report. Its message may well appeal to people who have suffered financially recently and to people sympathetic with them. Fine, but don't insult us by calling it optimistic. And don't think that hokey spin is going to fool anyone.
More oddities: on the Kerry Web site, the report is given three different headlines: "Americans Are Too Optimistic To Settle For George Bush's Economic Performance," "Strengthening Opportunities For Middle-Income Families," and "Families Continue To Struggle In Bush Economy." This is not just fractured message, it is the kind of political hedging and taking every side of an issue that seems to be Kerry's fatal political flaw.
Finally, Kerry previewed this report about the plight of the middle class at a million-dollar fundraiser at the home of millionaire rock star Bon Jovi, in the company of his half-a-billionaire wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. I don't know about you, but this gives me a cognitive dissonance headache.
I know it's considered impolite to bring up Kerry's gargantuan wealth; we're supposed to act like his wealth is a handicap he can't help. But the spectacle of one of the richest candidates in the history of this country campaigning on this theme of economic pessimism and calling it optimism is strange and unattractive.
One wishes John Kerry would not feel the need to emulate the Alfred E. Neuman "What, me worry?" demeanor of George Bush. It is a quality roughly half the electorate finds attractive in the president and the other half finds repulsive.
Kerry's attempt to win the happy game is doomed. It may also push wary voters to decide he really doesn't have other qualities they want in a president: confidence and comfortable self-knowledge.
Dick Meyer, the Editorial Director of CBSNews.com, has covered politics and government in Washington for 20 years and has won the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Alfred I. Dupont, and Society of Professional Journalists awards for investigative journalism.
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By Dick Meyer
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