Kerry’s Dilemma

Or, how to lose and election

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

There is a good chance that no matter what Kerry says or does in the final two weeks of this election — barring some major catastrophe in Iraq, a presidential gaffe, or massive voting irregularity — he will lose. And he may well take much of the Democrats’ remaining control of government down with him. After all, Putin wants Bush, while Arafat prefers Kerry — and that is all we need to know. But besides the obvious concerns of national security and Kerry’s own failure in any honest fashion to offer a coherent and principled alternative course of action to defeat the terrorists, there are more subtle, insidious factors at play that will, I think, preclude his election.

I thought John Kerry clearly won the first debate, lost the second, and did worse in the third. Most Americans, however, apparently disagreed, since many polls showed that respondents thought Kerry won all three. We hear of mayhem daily in Iraq; news on the economic front is mixed; and an entire host of surrogates has defamed George Bush in a manner not seen in decades during a political campaign. Why, then, does Kerry gain little traction, trail in most polls, and perhaps even start to slip further? After all, he is a hard campaigner, has a razor-sharp memory, speaks well, looks statesmanlike at times, raises lots of money, and has a mobilized base working hard for his election.

At least six reasons come to mind that have little to do with issues or substance, but everything to do with style, character, and judgment. First, he comes across, perhaps unfairly so, as an unfriendly sort. He seems to confirm to flyover America that the Ivy League East Coast is a cold place of holier-than-thou privileged reformers who live one life but advocate another. Kerry is a pleasant man, but he nevertheless presents himself as a ponderous aristocrat. His oratory, for all his undeniable mastery of facts and classical rhetorical tropes, is too often humorless, condescending, and pedantic. His photo opportunities that showcase hunting vests or windsurfing look forced, and they lack the natural ease of George Bush on the stump, twanging with his sleeves rolled up. Thus while Kerry does well in debates, he in some sense does not do well, since Americans feel he is either their smug professor or cranky grandfather, peeved that he had to descend from Olympus to impart knowledge to the less gifted. Somehow most would rather be wrong with Bush than right with Kerry.

Second, Democrats should have learned after the Dukakis implosion not to nominate a Massachusetts ultra-liberal. Past voting records, affinity with a wildly unpopular Ted Kennedy, and blinkered assumptions that the Harvard-Boston nexus is synonymous with America marginalize such candidates — as we are now seeing with Kerry, who ineptly fights off the liberal tag, tries to adopt populist mannerisms, and only with difficulty curbs his references to the world of New England high culture. JFK barely pulled it off, but then he was a widely celebrated and nearly disabled war hero, had a stylishly coy wife, and projected a certain vigor that captivated friend and foe alike.

Third, most of us don’t like lawyers all that much, at least in the abstract when we are not in need of wills or defense counsel, or being sued. Yet the Democrats nominated two to lead their ticket. Lawyers’ capital is their verbiage, but in wartime talk pales before action; and when a John Edwards hits the campaign trail, his glibness sounds mellifluous for the first minute, aggravating by the second, and unctuous, if not nauseating, the third. A friend remarked to me that he normally loves to listen to Carolina accents, but that Edwards has nearly cured him of that taste. The senator knows very little about medicine other than how to sue doctors, so when he promises mobility to quadriplegics we sense it is yet another of his canned courtroom performances designed to fool gullible juries. Next time nominate a businesswoman, general, or actor — anybody but two multimillionaire barristers. Quite simply, the Democrats forgot that their candidates must convince voters, not juries, and that good vocabularies and speaking cadences don’t equate to consistent, commonsense toughness in the face of terrorists.

Fourth, Kerry’s hypocrisy is finally catching up to him. He talks of raising taxes on those who make over $200,000, but he should start with Teresa, who paid a rate far lower than most blue-collar families. A “man of the people” — and Kerry has cultivated such an unlikely image — simply doesn’t windsurf off Nantucket during a war, or snarl at federal bodyguards while skiing at Sun Valley, or peddle around on fancy racing bikes clad in Spandex. Few believe his calls for sacrifice and frugality when he owns a $500,000 powerboat, and could have saved thousands of gallons of precious fuel by symbolically shutting down one of his many estates or parking the Gulf Stream in the hangar and flying first-class. The suspicions about the new Democratic party of multimillionaires such as Terry McAuliffe, George Soros, and Ted Kennedy are only enhanced when it nominates a billionaire to head the ticket.

Fifth, Teresa Heinz Kerry started off as something of a novelty. Then she was praised as being refreshingly candid. But now? I wager that even handlers are more likely to grimace when she lectures, since she has the apparent ability to lose the election in a single moment. She tosses around slurs such as “shove it” and “scumbag” promiscuously, makes accusations of “un-Americanism,” and yet, unlike the spouses of Edwards, Bush, or Cheney, finds it difficult to exude even forced public affection for her second husband. Again, fairly or unfairly, her appearances almost reaffirm, rather than cast aside, the public’s doubt that if Kerry was not a U.S. Senator and she not a billionaire, neither would have married each other — all a world away from the preferable American Gothic tandem of George and Laura. So despite her elegance, intelligence, wealth, and verve, Teresa Heinz Kerry throughout the campaign has proven to be a walking time bomb.

Mimicking Marie Antoinette, Ms. Heinz Kerry advises the hurricane refugees to go naked, asks who cares about Arizona, tosses out conspiracy theories about wars for oil and October surprises, and assures us that she counsels her husband on “everything” well outside women’s issues — precisely what most of us suspected and thus feared. Add in her advice to “vote often,” her praise in wartime for dissidents as the true patriots, and her earlier promises to tap her fortune if the campaign got rough and we are left with the image not of a kindhearted philanthropist (which she probably really is), but a headstrong, do-it-my-way heiress, using a deceased Republican’s fortune to subsidize trendy Democratic causes while retaining the lifestyle of the true corporate capitalist. No wonder she will not release her full tax records. And when she sneered that Laura Bush’s past librarianship was not really a job, she had not a clue that most Americans would consider toiling in the public schools a far more difficult — and more rewarding — task than being a hostess to a billionaire, with plenty of time to brush-up on boutique causes and gripes. All that might sound harsh and terribly one-sided, but it is the image that she, not the media, created with the American voters, and it too contributes to the public’s uneasiness with Kerry.

Sixth, at first it seemed neat to welcome in the billions of George Soros and the hype of a Michael Moore. But not now. is also beginning to grate. Even its slickest commercials come across as crass, and lacking in the populist themes of the graying and grimacing Swift-boat veterans’ testimonies. Soros is an unhappy and often cruel character, and he reminds the voting public that all Kerry’s cries about Halliburton and Enron fall flat when he is being subsidized with the millions made from international money speculation, which has caused such mayhem in financial markets. After all, nearly ruining the banks and pensions funds in England to make a billion dollars is not a very populist or even kind thing to do. At least Halliburton, unlike Soros and his gang of speculators, creates something real, and its employees risk their lives to build infrastructure for those desperately in need of it.

Nor was it wise to piggyback on Michael Moore’s transient infamy, whose buffoonery is even more tiresome than Soros’s machinations. He cannot finish a simple sentence without a barely audible grunt, obscenity, or “ya know” — even while he caricatures George Bush’s diction as inelegant. His movies are increasingly discredited as crude propaganda, his books simple big-print screaming, full of factual errors and teenager logic. Moore also talks of populism, but gouges college students for $30,000 a rant — recently offering nothing more than foul language and aimless rambling, before kicking out C-Span cameras in worry that they might have captured his embarrassing nonperformance for millions of viewers. That he has figured prominently in the campaigns of Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, was highlighted at the Democratic convention, and jets around for Kerry are all embarrassments — not support that any sane operative would wish. Everyone Michael Moore has ever endorsed has lost, and he should have been avoided like the kiss of political death he is. His supporters find him useful but only mildly amusing, while his detractors are vehement in their dislike and impart guilt by association to any who come within his toxic orbit. That his lecture fees, lifestyle, and gratuitous slurs are at odds with the old Democratic image of a Happy Warrior only accents the mistake of welcoming him into the fold.

So there you have it. Despite uncertain news here and abroad, the perception that Kerry won the debates, a skilled — and extremely vicious — campaign team, and the hefty subsidies of time and money from the arts, universities, media, and Hollywood, Kerry still cannot quite close the stubborn remaining gap of two to three points. How can he, when it was a mistake to nominate him in the first place, and a further mistake to add Edwards to the ticket? A Gephardt/Lieberman combination, or something reflecting such middle-of-the-road practicality and seriousness — scolding the president from the responsible right on tactical lapses in postwar Iraq — would never have gotten through the extremist primary and embarrassing Deanomania, but it might well have won the general election.

When this is all over, and George Bush is reelected — Republicans then controlling all branches of federal government, and most of the state legislatures and governorships — then, and only then, will Democrats grasp the march of folly in 2004, and either return to their roots or perish from increasing irrelevance. Meanwhile, George Bush, oblivious to the hysteria, will finish and win this war.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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