Towards A Good Samaritan World

Saturday, November 13, 2004


Ryan Lizza (of the Kerry-supporting New Republic) attacks Kerry and his campaign; Jonathan Last (of the Bush-supportingWeekly Standard) defends him. Yet it's not clear that they really disagree. Lizza writes:

The largest caucus of recriminators, one that spans ideological boundaries and includes critics from every corner of the party, argues that Kerry failed to offer a compelling message. As Kerry seemed to realize in his speech Saturday night, the no-message critique is congealing into conventional wisdom. I heard it in every conceivable permutation from almost everyone I interviewed. "I don't know that we ever knew what it was we were saying about George W. Bush," says one senior member of the team, whose job it was to come up with a message about Bush. It was a problem that plagued the campaign as soon as they stumbled, penniless, from the primaries into the general election. "When we got into the general, nobody knew how to go against Bush," says a senior campaign official. "[Senior adviser Bob] Shrum and [pollster Mark] Mellman built this strategy against Bush, 'Stronger at home, respected in the world.' What does that mean? We never even had strategy memos." By the fall, things were no better. "If there was a clear message in September about why you elect Kerry and defeat Bush, most of the people in the campaign were unaware of it," says one senior strategist hired late in the campaign.

Where Last writes:

I have to assume that many of these critics never actually followed the candidate around, because close-up, Kerry was a pretty good candidate. I saw Kerry blow away crowds in New Hampshire. He gave a very good convention speech. He was excellent in the first presidential debate (but for the "global test" line, which haunted him afterwards). His day-to-day performance on the stump was also very fine--I saw him handle tough questions from voters with aplomb; and when he was interacting with a crowd, his rich and haughty caricature disappeared completely.

And let's not forget his résumé: Volunteered for service in Vietnam, saw combat, served as a prosecutor and then for two decades as a United States senator. In many ways, Kerry was a better candidate than Bush.

Put it together and you get this story: Kerry was articulate and had an effective presence as a campaigner, but he failed for lack of message. The Democrats' basic problem is not in personalities or strategies or image: it is being wrong. Last adds revealingly that Joe Lieberman, whom Marty Peretz says could have beat Bush, but Last points out that "Joe Lieberman had a better chance of winning the Republican nomination." I hope the Dems' center of gravity has shifted by 2008.


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