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The Pathetic Truth

This column from The American Prospect was written by Michael Tomasky.

It's still possible that John Kerry could win -- although, of course, anytime a liberal columnist opens his column with a phrase like that, it's not a good sign.

Yes, it's still possible. The Clinton bullpen squad could rally the candidate. (And don't forget: He's a great closer!!) But even if he does win, this campaign has already offered another object lesson in why Democrats tend to lose.

The problem begins with the fact that majorities of the public tend to agree with Democrats on the issues. This isn't universally true, of course, but it's true with regard to more issues (perhaps many more issues) than not. On health care, the environment, investment, education, just about everything except national defense, majorities lean toward the Democratic position.

This sounds like a good thing. But in fact, it's an incredibly bad thing, because it leads Democrats to believe that they can win on the issues. So a Democratic presidential candidate's pollster goes out into the field and comes back with data proving that 54 of percent of the people are with us on this issue, and 61 percent of them are with us on that one, and so on. And so the pollster tells the candidate, "Just talk about the issues, and everything will be ducky."

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Republican pollsters, meanwhile, conduct the same polls, and they study the same data. They tell their candidates, "Actually, boss, we can't really win on the issues, so we'd better come up with something else." Well, after the past six weeks, we all know what that something else is. It's character. That is, make the election about the other guy's character.

I don't want to sound like a conspiracy monger, but all the evidence of how this campaign has played out so far suggests that something like the following happens. It seems that once the Democratic nominee is decided -- in the current case, that would have been early March -- the top Republican and conservative strategists start having conversations. They probably get together and say something like: "OK, John Kerry's the nominee. In one sentence or maybe two, what do we want the American voting public to be thinking about John Kerry by November 2? The neighbors discussing their votes on election eve -- what do we want them to be saying about Kerry?"

The answer they settled on was clearly something to the effect that "he can't be trusted to fight the war on terror." Then, once they've agreed on that, they say: "Okay. How do we get there from here? What are the stages of the argument?" And then they lay it out, and the stages are exactly as we've seen:

  • First, label him a flip-flopper. Establish him as unreliable. When dealing with someone who's been in the Senate for 20 years, casting thousands of roll-call votes on everything under God's sun, that's child's play.
  • Second, go after his war record in Vietnam. It's the one obvious resume advantage Kerry has (had?) over Bush. Erase it with a bunch of old and not credible charges. Turn Kerry's advantage into a wash.
  • Third, bring in Kerry's 1971 testimony. That should have the effect of planting the seed: Gee, if he spoke out against America then, can we be sure he'll defend America now?
  • Fourth and last, once the historical groundwork is established, bring it up to the present. Tie it into terrorism and Iraq. Kerry -- the flip-flopper, the war-story embellisher, the critic of American military aims -- can't be trusted.

    I should note for disclosure purposes that I think they're a bunch of scurrilous liars. But what I think isn't the point of this column. The point is how organized and good they are at what they do. There are occasional departures from the script, like Dick Cheney's extemporaneous remark that a Kerry election would ensure another terrorist attack; everyone understands that that is certainly the implied message of Republican salvos, it's just not the kind of thing you're actually supposed to say. But 97 percent of the time, the Republicans stay completely on the message they decided on shortly after they knew who their competition was going to be. And sure enough, come November 2, a lot of American voters will be driving to their polling places, thinking to themselves, "Gosh, I just don't think John Kerry can be trusted to fight the war on terror."

    And the Democrats? Well, if they had such a strategy, they sure haven't offered any evidence that it was implemented. They don't appear to do any of this. And it's not that they don't do it because they're better people. It's a socio-psychological fact (if there is such a bird) that liberals tend to want to believe the best about the world, while conservatives see the world in darker, more Hobbesian hues. This, not the fact that they're better human beings, makes liberals less likely to play on voters' fears -- makes them want to believe that they actually can win a campaign on the issues.

    In a rational world (speaking of things liberals want to believe in!), they would win campaigns on the issues. And in fact they did win two, but that was only when they had an unusually articulate and charismatic candidate named Clinton (and when it was possible to win with 43 percent of the vote, as Clinton did in 1992, or when the Hobbesians nominate a septuagenarian hatchet man, as they did in 1996).

    But the world is the world. Republicans understand the world, and Democrats do not. Republicans know that voters will respond emotionally to character questions, and they know that the media will lap them up like a thirsty dog. Democrats keep thinking that voters will do something as improbably nutritional as study a health care plan (as, surely, a scattered few do), and that the media will show themselves eager to write articles and broadcast discussion segments about health care plans. Both assumptions are folly.

    George W. Bush has a record the Democrats should have made mincemeat of. Right about now, the media should be writing, and American voters should be thinking: Golly, a million jobs lost, millions more in poverty, manufacturing down; no WMD's, 1,000-plus dead, Iraq on the brink of civil war, al Qaeda larger than ever and still recruiting, acts of worldwide terrorism on the rise, North Korea and Iran responding to the cowboy routine by going nuclear. This should have been easy.

    Now, it's too late for the Democrats to create these narratives. The counter-narrative is too well established. Kerry could still win, but whatever his fate, Democratic political professionals need to think hard about this. They get paid millions of dollars (and here I am offering all this for free), and they dispense the same wrong advice over and over. And over. And over. And...

    Michael Tomasky is executive editor of The American Prospect.

    By Michael Tomasky
    Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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