Political Hay

The MIA Senator

What Kerry didn't discuss, Bush should.

By 8.2.04

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WASHINGTON -- Believe it or not, I actually attended two Democratic conventions. The first was in 1976 when Woody Jenkins, at the time a Democratic National Committeeman from Louisiana, called a meeting of the convention's several hundred pro-life delegates. He asked us to help with logistical support. Think of it. Only 28 years ago the Democrats had still not become the wholly owned entity of the pro-abortion lobby that it is today. Jimmy Carter, who was nominated for president by the Democrats that very year, had won a surprise victory in the Iowa caucuses by being the pro-life candidate. Then 20 years later, I broadcast daily on NET: The Political Newstalk Network, from the 1996 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The Democrats treated me well; in fact, a lot better than the Republicans. That was the year that Bill Clinton was renominated and, as Dick Morris told me later, designed his campaign right out of the conservative playbook.

I didn't attend this year's convention (I only go every twenty years) but I did stay up to watch all the speeches and…guess what? Once again the Democrats are running their campaign right out of the conservative playbook. Poor Bob Dole. He didn't figure out what was happening in 1996. George Bush and his people are a lot smarter. They should be wise to what the Democrats are trying to do.

I didn't know what to expect when Senator John Kerry (D-MA) strolled through the crowd and mounted the podium at the 44th Democratic National Convention. I had watched him through the primaries. My impression was that he wasn't much of a performer. He won the nomination because he wasn't Howard Dean. Even on the night when he thanked Iowa voters for making him the "comeback Kerry" he seemed stiff and not at all at ease with himself.

But last Thursday night, Kerry did seem at ease. Not only that, he looked presidential. If voters knew nothing about who Kerry is and what his record is and they just tuned in to have a look-see at the alternative to George Bush, they might well have come away impressed. You could imagine Kerry in the Oval Office. He had managed to do what even most of his more ardent supporters were afraid he couldn't do. He not only wowed the partisan crowd at the convention, he spoke to the undecided voter and probably scored reasonably well.

IT WAS QUITE A performance. It took me about a half-hour of reflecting on what I had heard before it hit me. John Kerry, who has spent twenty years in the United States Senate, said almost nothing about his service there. In fact, even the very impressive film introducing Kerry and the remarkable introduction of him by his former colleague, Max Cleland (D-GA), made very little mention of his Senate service.

It was a clever way in which Kerry started his speech by saluting and saying he was reporting for duty. Indeed, much of what was said of Kerry and what Kerry said about himself, concentrated more on his service in Vietnam than anything else. I want to take nothing away from his service to his country, but no matter how brave, are we to believe that having spent four months in Vietnam at age 25 is more important to his ability to be President than two decades in the U.S. Senate?

And neither in the introduction to Kerry nor in Kerry's own comments was there mention of his service as lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. Why? Well, when discussing his service in Vietnam he puts President Bush, who was in the National Guard, on the defensive. He forces Bush to argue in what he believes is Kerry territory. If he mentioned his time as lieutenant governor someone might ask "who was the governor back then?" The answer is Michael Dukakis. We wouldn't want to recall the fellow who was 17 points ahead right after the 1988 Democratic National Convention and who was subsequently defeated quite soundly by George Herbert Walker Bush now would we?

Likewise his role in the Senate. If we dwell on that, it is George Bush's territory. It enables Bush to remind voters that the non-partisan National Journal has said that John Kerry is the most liberal senator of the 100 and, while his runningmate, John Edwards (D-NC), is said to be the 4th most liberal senator, actually he is tied for second. Edwards was just listed as fourth. And for having spent two decades in the Senate, Kerry's record is rather sparse. Few bills bear his name. He did, for example, embrace the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, not something that would necessarily speak to his judgment on national security matters. President Reagan was trying to aid the Contras in Nicaragua, while the left was supportive of the government that had taken freedom away from the people. Kerry talks freedom now. He didn't then.

Given the fact that we are in a war with radical Islam, you would think Kerry would want to tout his service on the Senate Intelligence Committee. But that would invite the spotlight on the fact that the Senator didn't show up much while the Committee was conducting hearings. No wonder his record in the Senate was skipped over.

BILL WELD, THE FORMER GOVERNOR of Massachusetts, warned President Bush that Senator Kerry is brilliant at sidestepping issues and in changing the subject. He suggested the President might think he was shadow boxing when it was all over. Obviously, if the impressive performance that Senator Kerry turned in Thursday night is to be countered effectively, it will depend on President Bush's ability to get Kerry back into Bush's territory. In other words, the President has to concentrate on making Kerry's record in the Senate a pertinent issue. Of course, Kerry has indeed been on both sides of most issues so Bush will have to be very well informed on what that record exactly is in order to prevent Kerry from being able to contradict whatever charge the President makes. Still, when you are more liberal than Senator Ted Kennedy (D-MA), it may be hard to explain.

After I watched the smooth but somewhat anemic performance of Senator Edwards on Wednesday, I thought if Senator Kerry turned in a stiff and somewhat grim performance Thursday there might not be much of a bounce out of the convention. It was the speech of Kerry's career and he was up to it. Pollster John Zogby's survey taken during the time the Democratic National Convention was in session showed the Kerry-Edwards ticket leading the Bush-Cheney ticket by 5 percentage points. Most likely, the polls will show Kerry holding a lead as the Republicans convene their convention in New York at the end of August.

The President will have to meet the Senator on his ground, not on Kerry's ground, if he is to prevail in November.

I have no doubt that the President served his country honorably. I am sure if he had been sent to Vietnam he would have gone. He did learn to fly fighter planes. But if the issue is who served his country more bravely, Bush will be in Kerry's territory. Some in Kerry's platoon dispute his bravery and will say so later in August. But Bush can't touch that issue even if it has merit. No matter what the issue, Bush needs to get the focus back on Kerry's record in the Senate. For example, Kerry said he has a health care plan and Bush doesn't. Bush could ask why, when Bill Clinton was President and the Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress, didn't Kerry push his health care plan then?

There is a mighty good reason the Senate was mentioned in -- as I recall -- just about three sentences in a 46-minute speech. That tells you exactly where Kerry doesn't want to go. I assume there are folks at the President's campaign who are examining the Kerry record in the Senate. The debates may prove to be a telling factor in this campaign, and the President must be armed with the facts about the complete, unvarnished Kerry record. My old friend Richard Viguerie has always argued that the tallest candidate in the Presidential debates gets elected. John Kerry is 6 feet 4 inches tall. If Bush manages to get Kerry into Bush territory, he just might be the exception to the rule.

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About the Author

Paul M. Weyrich is chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.