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FishForLunch
04-22-2004, 10:54 PM
Kerry's Missing Message . . .

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, April 22, 2004; Page A31

In the past month or so, everything has gone wrong for George W. Bush. He has been criticized at hearings of the Sept. 11 commission for being lackadaisical about terrorism. Richard Clarke accused him of being weirdly obsessed with Iraq. More than 100 Americans have been killed there in the past 30 days, and Bush was so inarticulate in his recent news conference that you could say he violated the standards of his own "No Child Left Behind" policy. Still, if this keeps up, he'll win reelection in a landslide.


That, at least, is the forgivable conclusion you can draw from the Washington Post-ABC News poll released this week. It had Bush ahead of John Kerry, the Democrats' presumptive nominee, by 48 percent to 43 percent, with most of the rest (6 percent) going to someone named Nader. What's particularly telling is that Bush and Kerry have traded places on two key issues -- national security and the economy. Where Bush once lagged, he is now in the lead.

Polls are snapshots, and we are cautioned not to make too much of them. The only poll that counts, or so the cliche goes, is the one conducted on Election Day, and the Kerry people would like to add one more banality: The campaign has just begun. Maybe, but it looks to me like it may be over.

Why? Well, in the first place, it's hard to envisage things getting even worse for Bush. The past month should have been ruinous, and yet the president not only survived, he thrived. Explanations abound for this state of affairs. Some credit the Democrats on the Sept. 11 commission for being too partisan and thus eliciting support for Bush, much as Republican zealots once proved so helpful to Bill Clinton.

Maybe. More likely though, and certainly more important, is the $41 million the Bush campaign spent on television ads in March alone. They defined Kerry as a man who gives wishy-washy a bad name -- or who has been an unceasing advocate of tax increases, such as the one on gasoline he once suggested, although he never introduced a bill to that effect. Never mind. It still made Kerry look like a jerk.

Money will undoubtedly matter in the presidential campaign, and the president is going to have more of it than Kerry. But what will matter just as much, if not more, is Kerry's message. At the moment, it is nowhere to be found. If anyone out there can complete the following sentence, please let the Kerry campaign know: Vote for John Kerry because . . . The only thing that comes to mind is that he is not George Bush.

Significantly, in one area where Kerry is demonstrably not Bush, it works against him. Bush is minimally articulate; Kerry is downright verbose. When Kerry opens his mouth, whole chunks of paragraphs fall out and hit the floor with a clunk. The Post's John F. Harris last month compared the prepared text of a speech Kerry gave with what he actually said. The man is a master of subordinate clauses, of thoughts that meander into blind alleys. Campaign aides showed the article to Kerry, but it seems brevity is simply not in him. He truly knows too much -- a charge that cannot be leveled at Bush.

If I were running the Kerry campaign, I would simply show over and over again Bush's response at his news conference about why he insists on appearing at the Sept. 11 hearings with Vice President Cheney. Bush had no answer -- none whatsoever -- and even a follow-up failed to get a response. (My follow-up would have been to ask if they were going to dress identically.) The look on Bush's face was both telling and scary. He simply had no acceptable answer.

Whether that would work with the American people, I don't know. A majority of them favor the president in the one area in which he has clearly failed them: national security. He has presided over two unprecedented intelligence failures -- the surprise attacks of Sept. 11 and the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq -- and took the nation into a war in Iraq before the one in Afghanistan had been successfully concluded. (Osama bin Laden is still on the loose.) Still, Kerry has not been able to lay a glove on Bush.

In every campaign he runs -- including the Democratic primaries and caucuses this year -- John Kerry finishes stronger than he starts. Maybe that will happen again. But so far he has yet to articulate a message and get into rhetorical fighting shape. Another bad month like the last for Bush, and the president will have his second term in the bag.