Political Hay

John Dean Kerry

If his voice weren’t shot you would probably hear him screaming as he implodes.

By 3.16.04

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Is the Kerry campaign on the verge of imploding? Barely two weeks after unofficially sewing up the nomination, John Kerry doesn't look at all like a candidate who has been leading in the polls. He seems increasingly gaffe-prone, the quality that ultimately sank Howard Dean.

Last week Kerry and his campaign had to fend off the press over the "lying, crooked" remark, and they fended it off like Napoleon fended off the British at Waterloo. Instead, spokesman David Wade said Kerry was referring to some elusive "Republican attack machine" that included Karl Rove, Rush Limbaugh, and Sean Hannity. When no one really believed that, Kerry offered the slightly less believable explanation that he was referring to "attack dogs," and not Republicans in general. Had Kerry issued a non-apology apology such as, "I regret that the public heard those remarks; it was said in the heat of the moment, when I was tired," the story might have faded away. Instead, Kerry gave it legs.

On Sunday, Kerry almost had a Howard Dean-Dale Ungerer moment during a town hall meeting in Pennsylvania. Audience member and Bush supporter Cedric Brown challenged Kerry on his claim that "foreign leaders" had told him that he needs to beat Bush. "It's not your business. It's mine," Kerry responded testily before going on to challenge Brown's credibility. "Did you vote for George Bush?" Kerry demanded. Not quite the same as telling someone to "sit down!", but not exactly magnanimous either.

The "foreign leaders" remark is tactically one of the worst by any candidate in quite some time. It even prompted Colin Powell, usually quite circumspect, to enter the fray. "I don't know what foreign leaders Senator Kerry is talking about," Powell said on Sunday. "If he can't list names, then perhaps he should find something else to talk about." The problem is that Kerry will have a hard time finding something else to talk about. By suggesting that foreign leaders want to see him elected president, Kerry precipitated questions by the press to know which leaders he was referring too. Since Kerry insists that he cannot betray their confidence, the questions will continue to linger.

Recently Juan Williams described Kerry as "someone who can take a punch and punch back on his way to a strong finish." Yet last week showed a Kerry who was punch drunk. The reason is that Kerry's campaign skills really haven't been tested. The only real challenge Kerry faced during the primary was revamping his campaign after he lost the lead in the polls to Howard Dean. Dean's implosion is what was primarily responsible for Kerry's wins in Iowa and New Hampshire. After the Granite State win had cemented his position as frontrunner, Kerry never really faced a serious attack. Gephardt and Lieberman were gone early, Clark was feckless, Dean was in disarray, and Edwards played too nice. Perhaps if Kerry had to defend his status as a frontrunner, it would have toughened him up, made him more careful in his remarks, and impressed upon him the difference between putting out fires and pouring gasoline on them.

Indeed, Kerry hasn't faced a tough challenge since his Senate race of 1996. (He ran unopposed in 2002.) And a closer look at that victory, over GOP Governor William Weld, suggests that Kerry's ability to best a tough opponent is suspect. Kerry beat Weld by only seven percentage points, despite outspending Weld by $4.6 million, and running in what was a good year for Democrats and during Bill Clinton's successful effort to make the unpopular Newt Gingrich the face of the Republican Party. As the Almanac of American Politics suggested, it "may simply have been a matter of Democrats coming home," as Clinton walloped Dole in Massachusetts 61-28%. Kerry didn't so much fight his way to the finish line as he was carried there on Clinton's coattails.

Last week Kerry demonstrated campaign skills that are very rusty, if they exist at all. Unless he makes big improvements quickly, he is headed for a meltdown. Since he is not given to impulsive primal screams à la Dean, it will not be sudden. Rather, it will draw out like a blade as he compounds one gaffe with another and another...

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About the Author

David Hogberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.  Follow David Hogberg on Twitter.