Terry McAuliffe didn’t expect this. When McAuliffe, the Democratic National Committee chairman, decided to frontload the Democratic primaries, he was convinced that an early nominee would unify the party. He and his fellow Democrats were sure that hatred of President Bush was widespread and that any nominee with party backing – especially a nominee with appeal to swing voters – would be able to defeat the incumbent. If only the Democrats could grab an early nominee and keep him undefined until the Democratic National Convention, the White House would fall into Democratic hands.
The early primaries were a dangerous tactic. The early passion of primary voters meant that they defined the party. At first, that meant a strong Howard Dean candidacy. But then, the primary voters revealed their main agenda: getting George W. Bush out of office. It didn’t matter who replaced him. And that is why Democrats chose John Kerry.
They thought Kerry would be able to withstand attacks from the Bush administration by citing his Vietnam experience. They thought he could pose as a moderate, even though he voted like a liberal. They believed that hatred for President Bush ran so strong that any candidate, even a zombie like Kerry, could beat him by default.
The Democrats who voted for John Kerry must be crying into their beers at this point. The slim lead he took away from the early primaries immediately dissipated, and the campaign became a dogfight, even as President Bush did little to defend his name or define his opponent.
Kerry and his cronies fired political nukes at Bush, slandering him as a war profiteer and a corrupt Saudi plaything. Extra-party organs like MoveOn.org compared Bush to Adolf Hitler. High-ranking Democrats like retired Gen. Wesley Clark questioned Bush’s patriotism. Michael Moore, easily the most popular member of the Democratic Party among his base, accused Bush of treason.
Bush did virtually nothing to respond, and yet Kerry could not pull away. It wasn’t panic time yet for McAuliffe. After all, Kerry was still leading, and the American population still didn’t know Kerry and didn’t realize who he was or what he stood for. A Los Angeles Times poll in June 2004 showed that a full third of voters “didn’t know enough about Kerry to decide whether he would be a better president than Bush.” The train was still running smoothly.
Kerry selected the popular and pretty John Edwards, creating a McAuliffe dream North-South ticket. Still, Kerry could not pull away. And then, the Democratic Convention began. Kerry, who had avoided all attempts to categorize himself in any way, branded himself a Vietnam veteran candidate. He made his service in Vietnam the focal point of his White House run – and still, he could not pull away. He got virtually no bump from the convention.
In August, finally, President Bush began to strike back. All of the undercurrents of anti-Kerry sentiment bubbled to the surface. Veterans remembered his anti-military stance after returning from Vietnam in the 1970s. Americans remembered his anti-military stance during the Cold War and the 1990s. And everyone remembered that, in wartime, all the misdirected vitriol in the world won’t protect Americans from attack.
It all added up to this week’s devastatingly low approval ratings among registered voters. As of Sept. 14, Kerry’s approval ratings stood at 36 percent. By comparison, Michael Dukakis’ 1988 approval ratings look positively Reaganesque, at 47 percent. Famous baseball star George Brett once stated that the first thing he looked for in the papers every Sunday was to see who was below the “Mendoza line.” He was referring to Mario Mendoza, an infielder with a career average of .215; if a player hit below that average, he was flat-out terrible. To score below Michael Dukakis as a presidential challenger is very much akin to breaking the Mendoza line – call it “breaking the Dukakis line.”
So what went wrong for McAuliffe? After all, he got everything he wanted: an early nominee, a nominee with possible swing support, and a nominee who remained largely undefined until the convention. The McAuliffe strategy went south for two reasons: First, John Kerry is imperious and arrogant. Second, Kerry didn’t have to define himself – his backers defined him.
With the rise of the alternative media (including so-called “527 groups”), close ties between political parties and those outlets define the candidates, even in the absence of self-definition. Michael Moore and his crowd defined Kerry more than Kerry defined himself. While Kerry remained an enigma, the Michael Moore wackos showed the American public that Kerry’s candidacy was about Bush hatred, not American security.
And so when Kerry finally defined his candidacy at the convention, he had already been defined as a far-left candidate. Even his bloviation about Vietnam couldn’t mask the radicalism of his supporters. That was the biggest problem with the McAuliffe strategy: The primary voters defined the party candidate.