Campaign Crawlers

A Failure to Communicate

John Kerry didn't have to repulse the right.

By 11.8.04

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After a brief spell of post-election sobriety, the Democratic rank-and-file have once more reverted to angry type. They bemoan the idiocy of the American electorate. They forecast the downward spiral presently in store for our doomed republic. They curse the muddled masses for spurning the totality of wisdom as embodied by the Democratic platform. All this by way of making the larger point. To wit, that Bush supporters are, to the moron, nutty fundamentalists impervious to reason.

What these excitable folks need is a refresher course in clarity. Start with the explanations they've produced to account for the fact that a certain senator is not currently reporting for duty. It was those wicked Swift Boat vets. No, no, it was that confounded Kerry. Scratch that. It was those Jesus freaks, consumed with "ignorance and bloodlust."

I submit that it was all and none of the above. Certainly Kerry had his weaknesses, an evident lack of conviction being arguably the most fatal. Meantime, the Swift Boat veterans' offensive, though substantively suspect at times, served to raise legitimate questions about Kerry's shameless claim that his leadership in Vietnam -- a war he famously indicted as misguided -- was concurrently evidence that he defended his country against an existential enemy. And, as exit polls confirm, the religious faithful clearly rallied to the president's cause.

Yet such easy explanations miss a central fact. None of the above would have mattered had Kerry appealed to more conservative and Republican voters. Seen with the benefit of hindsight, however, Kerry's campaign reveals just how divorced it was from the concerns of the president's core constituency.

That constituency, as studies have long showed, consists largely of the solid middle and the upper-middle class. Whether a liberal Democrat from Massachusetts could ever have chipped away at the GOP's bedrock base is a debatable proposition. What seems clear is that Kerry's pitch to the GOP's was altogether misdirected.

ALMOST FROM THE MOMENT he emerged as the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, Kerry began repulsing the right. For months on end, Kerry invoked the specter of a "middle class squeeze." "Our great middle class is shrinking," Kerry glumly insisted at the Democratic National Convention. He echoed that theme on the stump, conjuring up bleak visions of spent middle-class kin who are slaving away at "two jobs, three jobs, and they're still not getting ahead." The wages of this appeal was that a majority in every income bracket from $50,000 to $200,000 went for Bush.

How to account for this breakdown? In part, it has to do with the fact that, Kerry's fear-mongering notwithstanding, the middle class is not actually being squeezed. But it also hints at what was arguably the far greater weakness of Kerry's campaign: Its utter inability to speak to conservatives.

Take the economy. With an eye to manufacturing job losses in battleground states, Kerry opted for a protectionist posture. He inveighed against outsourcing. He vowed to "close the tax loopholes that reward companies for shipping our jobs overseas." And he didn't stop there. Taking a page out of Michael Moore's book, Kerry claimed that the Bush administration was a tool of corporate interests. "I will have a Vice President who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws," Kerry said, following this up with, "You don't value families by kicking kids out of after school programs and taking cops off our streets, so that Enron can get another tax break." John Edwards was summarily dispatched to turn the vice presidential debate into a referendum on the evils of Halliburton.

Kerry's caricature proved his undoing. For one thing, what was accurate (outsourcing) was not new, and what was new (Halliburton, secret meetings with polluters) was not accurate. Worse for Kerry, his anti-corporate speechifying dashed any hope he may have had of wooing Republicans. What seemed to Democratic activists as a bold declaration against outsize interests played very differently across the political aisle. There Kerry appeared as a protectionist out to stifle free trade. Or, alternatively, he was just another tax-and-spend liberal waiting in the hard-left wings. Kerry's mistake was in assuming that conservative-leaning middle-class voters, even those who had experienced economic hardship, sympathized with either one of these positions. A look at the exit polls suggests they did not: 94 percent of Bush supporters believed the president pays more attention to ordinary Americans than to large corporations.

LESS COMPELLING STILL still was Kerry's call for expanded government. "Help is on the way!" Kerry intoned at the Democratic National Convention. It was an unfortunate choice of slogan. Even as it roused the Democratic faithful, it confirmed conservatives' in their worst suspicions: Kerry was a big government liberal. Thus, despite much pre-election grumbling about ballooning government during the first Bush term, supporters of smaller government still threw in their lot with the GOP. Among those who believed government should not do more to solve problems, 70 percent voted for Bush.

Arguably Kerry's most forceful bid for conservative support was his insistence on making morality a key pillar of his campaign. Operating under the flawed assumption that repetition equals conviction, Kerry went on a values spree. Every campaign stop was an excuse for Kerry to broadcast his "values." Airy dictums like "Values are not just words" earned the senator a shower of encomiums from a sympathetic commentariat. To conservatives, however, Kerry's vaunted values seemed like just that. What was it, if not the arrant absence of values, that induced Kerry to tailor his views on pressing issues like Iraq to suit fluctuating public opinion? Again, the exit polls are a testament to these doubts: Of the 22 percent of the electorate that considered moral values the most important issue, 80 went for Bush.

In reflecting on this election, Democrats ought to consider the Kerry campaign's failure to connect to conservatives and Republicans. That they did in fact fail is borne out by the polls, which indicate that 84 percent of conservatives and 93 percent of Republicans backed the president.

For embittered Kerry-supporters, the temptation to write off these voters as blanket religious fanatics is perhaps understandable. However, inasmuch as it avoids grappling with the fact that the GOP succeeded in loosening the Democratic grasp on formerly solid Blue States like New Jersey, it is ultimately self-defeating: To deride a vast swath of the electorate is to abandon any hope of winning conservative and Republican support, and to consign the Democratic Party to the losers' column for the long term. That holds especially true for the Red States. So long as angry Democrats are bent on seeing the world in black and white, they'll never see Red.

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About the Author

Jacob Laksin is a writer in New York City.