Monday, November 08, 2004


Many commentators have attempted to explain the defeat of Democratic Pesidential candidate John Kerry by analyzing exit polls of voters. They are looking in the wrong place. Many also state that John Kerry ran a strong campaign and don’t assign him the blame for his defeat. They’re wrong.

From the get go in this election year, John Kerry was the wrong candidate, in the wrong place, at the wrong time (to borrow a paraphrase). He ran a presidential campaign worse than Al Gore’s in 2000, which is saying something, because Gore had all of the advantages of incumbency: a nation at peace running a $160 billion surplus in an excellent economic climate, running against an incoherent, simplistic opponent with no tangible record of accomplishment whose math was suspect and whose campaign slogan was a vague promise to be a “compassionate conservative.” (Which was ultimately defined by Bush visiting and praising a Youth Opportunity program in Oregon a month before cutting its funding out of the budget.)

The sad irony is that, like Gore, Kerry’s only decent speech in his campaign was his concession. Had either man during his campaign spoken from the heart, spoken the truth, with the same relaxed grace with which he conceded his respective election, he would have won in a landslide.

When 22 percent of the voters listed values at the top of their agenda, they weren’t necessarily meaning a belief in the divinity of Jesus or a homophobic response to gays. Values include having an elected official who is willing to speak the truth even when it hurts his electoral prospects. Values include the willingness to concede that the other side has a point- or even the better part of an issue- whether it be abortion or a concern for the institution of marriage. Values include the understanding that efforts to degrade, condescend to, or exclude any group of people (the wealthiest two percent, gays, evangelical Christians, immigrants, Muslims) do not enhance the likability or electability of the speaker. And most important, values mean that the candidate be genuine- not a patently insincere figure trolling for votes. Bush was believable when he said he opposed partial birth abortions and supported an increase in religious connections to government- scary, but believable. When Kerry lambasted the rich, one was always left with the question as to whether Kerry actually realized that he lived in several million dollar mansions with a billionaire wife. When his only response to the question as to what he would do different in Iraq was to bring in allies, perceptive voters wanted to shake him and ask: What if they don’t come? Or what if they come but the situation is exactly the same? What next? Pull out or send in more troops? No one watching him believed that he believed what he was saying, even those who voted for him, and that was part of his fatal flaw.

Strangely enough, had John Kerry followed the lead of his beloved Red Sox, he would have won the election. For 86 years the Sox were an exercise in futility. During most of those years, their teams weren’t very good. But several times they were good enough to get to the playoffs, and a few times all the way to a seventh game of the World Series. They blew it every time- until 2004. They blew it because they realized how important a win was- not just to them, but to the Red Sox faithful. And by trying so hard, they pressured themselves right out of a championship ring. In contrast, the 2004 version of the Sox were self described “idiots” who were loose and irreverent (one player had his pants grabbed during player introductions and didn’t make it onto the field). And without any self-imposed pressures, they staged the greatest playoff comeback in baseball history against the Yankees, then swept the Cardinals 4-0. Their lesson was simple: if you stop worrying about the outcome, but just play the game as best as you can, good things can happen. John Kerry was so focused on winning, so focused on not offending any group (except the two percent of the wealthiest), so focused on straddling issues and avoiding specifics on any of his vaunted “plans,” that he never realized what voters wanted: a man with whom they could relate, in whom they could trust, and who had a reason for wanting to be president other than just winning..

Had Kerry adopted the same relaxed attitude as the Red Sox, he would never have been goose hunting in an Ohio field 10 days before the election in a stiff, palpable and pathetic effort to ingratiate himself with white male gun owners who, as one late night comedian put it, would sooner vote for the goose than for Kerry. He wouldn’t have been reduced in the final week of his campaign, with bombs blowing up American soldiers almost daily in Iraq, to touting the lack of a flu vaccine as a reason for removing a sitting president. He wouldn’t have been attempting to explain away what couldn’t be explained- his vote to support the President’s use of force in Iraq, his criticism of Howard Dean for accurately stating that the removal of Saddam Hussein didn’t make America safer, and his unfocused, non-specific opposition to the manner in which the war is being waged. If it truly was the “wrong war, in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” then he should have admitted his errors in supporting it and explained how he would extract America from the Iraqi brierpatch.

There is no doubt in my mind that, like Al Gore before him, Kerry will host a Saturday Night Live this season. Like Gore and his famous kissing scene with wife Tipper, the writers will have Kerry do a devastating mockery of his foibles, including his stentorian speaking manner and his penchant for repeating the phrase “I have a plan” enough times that debate viewers were begging him to just once describe what he might actually do. I fully expect at least one goose hunting skit in which Kerry will be adorned with an orange hunting cap complete with ear flaps. And unless we Democrats learn our lessons from the past two elections, four years from now, Hillary Clinton will lose to Jeb Bush.


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