Political Hay

Advantage: Kerry

One thing the Bush campaign should understand: John F. Kerry is not going to repeat the mistakes of the Mondales and Dukakis’s.

By 2.9.04

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Polls are now showing that John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee for President, can defeat President Bush. Some of those polls show that Kerry's lead is now into double digits.

Bush-Cheney campaign operatives tell supporters not to worry. Kerry is the fourth Democrat to run for the Presidency from Massachusetts since 1980, the other three being Ted Kennedy (who was defeated by Jimmy Carter in the primaries), Paul Tsongas (who lost out to Bill Clinton, despite winning in New Hampshire) and Michael Dukakis (who lost to Bush 41 in 1988). All the others were liberal like Kerry. The all went down the drain. Kerry will too. They also point out that as late as August of 1988, Dukakis had a 17 point lead over President Bush's father, yet it all turned out fine in the end. As Sean Hannity is fond of saying, "Let not your heart be troubled."

Indeed, I recently received e-mail from a friend on Wall Street who reminded me that Bush has not had a primary challenge and the only Presidents who have been defeated in modern times were those who were seriously challenged in the primaries.

It is quite true that polls at this point don't mean much. It is also true that the American people don't focus on presidential elections until after Labor Day and that is when the match ups count.

But here is something else which is true. Beginning in 1972, millions of swing voters chose Republicans precisely because they believed that the Democrat candidate for President was weak on defense. That did in George McGovern. Jimmy Carter actually came off as tougher on defense after Gerald Ford insisted in one of their debates that Poland wasn't a Communist country. Then, after seeing Carter in office for four years, voters chose Ronald Reagan. They went back to Bush for two main reasons. They saw Dukakis in a freshly pressed suit, sitting in a military tank and looking ever so awkward as he pretended that he was pro-defense -- only calling attention to the fact that he wasn't. During a debate a CNN anchor asked what he would do if his wife were brutally attacked. He gave a theoretical answer that demonstrated that he could not be trusted to defend the country. The reason Dukakis was initially ahead was that he supposedly initiated the Massachusetts miracle, bringing unprecedented prosperity to that state. Many liked what they heard. Had Dukakis played things differently he might have been narrowly elected. Bush won with less than 54% of the vote.

Right now, voters are beginning to get a vague picture of Kerry. They like what they see. He seems to be always surrounded by veterans. They probably have heard that he saved a man in Vietnam who is now campaigning for Kerry. They may have seen Kerry suited up and out on the ice with Hockey players. Hockey is no game for the faint of heart. They perhaps read that Kerry won lots of medals for bravery in Vietnam.

The Bush people seem to think that they can just paint Kerry as a liberal like Ted Kennedy, and suddenly millions of voters will flock to Bush's side. I have news for the Bush team. It won't happen. Kerry has already inoculated himself against the charge that he is a Walter Mondale style tax increaser. Kerry has said he will keep the Bush tax cuts that helped the middle class. But he will repeal the tax cuts for the rich to help pay for expanded health care coverage. That pitch has a lot of appeal to the swing voters.

If the Bush campaign allows the Kerry-the-hockey-playing-war-hero image to be emblazoned in the minds of the swing voters for very long, by the time politics gets serious in September, it won't matter what Bush and company say. That is unless Kerry is stupid enough to give some Dukakis-like answers in the Presidential debates. My bet is that Kerry is smarter than that.

And yes, Kerry did things that anger some veterans, such as throwing other people's medals away and testifying as to the supposed atrocities of our servicemen. But if those charges are thrown around in September, most swing voters will say, "That's just ugly politics."

A campaign that depends upon your opponent to screw up in order for you to win is not a campaign that is likely to prevail. Like the football coaches who play the tapes of their opponents over and over again, you can bet that Kerry has studied what Kennedy, Tsongas, Dukakis, Mondale and even Al Gore did wrong. He is unlikely to repeat their mistakes.

If Kerry is seen on a level playing field with Bush where defense and the war on terror are concerned, then those swing voters will likely be with Kerry due to domestic considerations.

Yes, we have robust economic growth, but that economic growth is simply producing record profits for some major corporations. It is not producing many jobs, and even if the economy starts to produce jobs along about summertime it can't possibly begin to make up for all those jobs lost on Bush's watch.

If Kerry's image is to be changed, the Bush team will have to do so before it becomes so emblazoned in the mind of the voter that late inning charges won't do the trick. But when you have a political group that thinks otherwise, most likely little will happen. That, in the parlance of some contemporary sportscasters, leads to this conclusion, "Advantage: Kerry. "

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About the Author

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