A Memo To Kerry

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, speaks at a town hall meeting on healthcare during a campaign stop in Des Moines, Iowa Thursday, Sept. 9, 2004.
This column from The American Prospect was written by Allan J. Lichtman.

Nothing changes from one election to the next in America. That's because the media, the candidates, the pollsters, and the consultants are codependent on the false idea that elections are exercises in manipulating voters, giving us negative campaigns and scripted, programmed candidates. The typical effect of the two rival campaigns has been to cancel each other out, with voters discounting as political all claims, charges, and countercharges. Americans should be weeping big, salty tears over this year's sordid and uninspiring campaign. With Social Security and Medicare going broke, holes opening in the ozone layer, dead zones appearing in the Pacific, energy prices climbing, terrorists at the gates, and war raging in the Middle East, we're still fixated on what George W. Bush and John Kerry may or may not have done more than 30 years ago. A visitor from Mars would think he or she landed on the wrong planet.

The peanut politics of this campaign does not benefit Kerry, a challenger facing off against an incumbent president. Kerry's best hope lies in following the path of most resistance: discarding the conventional wisdom, substituting substance for spin control, and grabbing the attention of voters in new and innovative ways. A mistake-free, "safety first" campaign may somehow back Kerry into the White House, but keep your purses zipped. If nothing changes dramatically, Bush wins another term. To seize the initiative this year, Kerry needs to be more than an energized version of Michael Dukakis, who infamously said, on his way to becoming a footnote to history, that the 1988 campaign against George Bush Senior was "about competence, not ideology." If you yearn to be a manager, apply at McDonald's.

Like a marathoner at the gates of the stadium, Kerry is running out of real estate. He needs to act quickly and resolutely to transform the campaign into a clash of ideas, actively leading the public rather than following the polls and tying issues together in unifying themes that express a compelling vision of the nation's future. He can't make this change from peanut to big-picture politics with the usual round of speeches, ads, and campaign appearances, or in the swift but shallow currents of the presidential debates. He needs decisive initiatives, right now. As shown by the following four-point plan, there are ways for Kerry to grab the American people by the throat and get them to focus on ideas.

For openers, Kerry should appoint a shadow government, with suggested directors of the CIA and the Environmental Protection Agency, an attorney general, and secretaries of state, defense, the treasury, and the interior. Let them shadow John Ashcroft, Donald Rumsfeld, and Gale Norton through November 2, showing, not just saying, how a Kerry administration would change things for the better. It's been done before, though not by a presidential candidate or by liberals. After Jimmy Carter won the presidency in 1976, an unknown right-wing group called the Conservative Caucus put together what it called a "Citizen's Cabinet" of prominent conservatives to dog the new administration. The move gave conservatives something to cheer about and gained for the Conservative Caucus its first headline coverage.

Second, Kerry should jump-start his administration by foreshadowing the first days of his presidency. He should release his first three executive orders, his first three drafts of legislation, and the first three treaties that he would negotiate abroad. He should issue a real alternative budget, lined up against the Bush budget, with cost estimates and deficit projections.

Third, Kerry should emulate Ross Perot and have a serious conversation with the American people about the issues. In 1992, Perot didn't waste his money on 30-second ads; instead, he bought blocks of time to talk to America about urgent problems, such as the still persisting budget deficit. The strange and quirky Texan somehow clicked with Americans, who were convinced that he talked straight and truthfully without scripts or speechwriters. He even had those hokey charts that looked like something your kid worked up in social-studies class.

Fourth, Kerry should fire the hucksters. That's right, can the pollsters, the ad men and women, and the consultants, tear up their scripts, and advance our national debate by speaking forthrightly and concretely about what Americans should be accomplishing during the next four years. The consultants killed Al Gore in 2000, when the poor guy seemed to slip on a new personality with every turn of the polls or twitch of the focus groups. About a year after the election, Gore admitted that listening to the hucksters was the biggest mistake he made in 2000. Instead, he said, much too late, that he should have spoken directly from his heart to the American people.

Kerry, unlike Gore, has time to change course in real time, not dream time. Yet Kerry has astoundingly sought to recalibrate his campaign by taking on yet more advisers. Even his consultants now have consultants. Kerry needs to clear his decks and his mind. After some three decades in politics, he surely must know what he wants to say to the American people. Otherwise he doesn't deserve to be president. John McCain became a national icon as the guy who cut through the blue smoke of politics with the searchlight of truth and candor. Why not Kerry? Even the reporters who follow the campaign seem to agree that his best moments are the unscripted ones.

It's much too dangerous, the consultants will warn Kerry of any risk-taking plan. Why give the opposition big targets for their cannon fire? Why make Kerry look as flaky as Perot? Why force ideas down the throat of a public that doesn't care? The simple answer is that absent a much more desperate situation for an incumbent, a challenger won't win by following conventional prescriptions about how not to lose.

A new style of campaigning would serve the nation no less than John Kerry. The only thing worse than losing is losing irrelevantly. A campaign that replaced spin control with substance, pretense with candor, timidity with boldness would, at the very least, improve the ability of winning parties to govern, establish a principled opposition, elevate the level of political debate, and inspire activism at the grass roots.

Allan J. Lichtman is a history professor at American University and the author of The Keys to the White House. Using his "Keys" system, developed in collaboration with world-renowned forecasting authority Vladimir Keilis-Borok, he has correctly predicted the popular-vote outcome in the last five presidential elections.

By Allan J. Lichtman
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect. All rights reserved