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John Kerry’s recent shakeup of his campaign illustrates his larger problem: He is playing a simple game of checkers, while President Bush is playing a subtle game of chess.
Edging aside Bob Shrum and promoting former Clinton spokesmen Mike McCurry and Joe Lockhart to key positions in the campaign replaces a flawed strategist – Shrum – with two able, but limited, tacticians. Both McCurry and Lockhart are good at handling evolving crises and keeping the media well fed and happy. But two press secretaries do not equal one strategist.
Kerry’s basic problem is that he has no overview of how he’s going to win. His consultants and staff confuse a pile of ammunition with a strategy.
Their basic idea is to hit Bush with everything and anything they can find. But throwing negatives at a sitting president is like punching a pillow. It feels good and keeps the base happy – but it doesn’t help to win the election. By the time a man has served four years as president, negatives that pre-existed his tenure are largely irrelevant.
People are keenly interested in the character strengths and flaws of a challenger; they want keys to how he’d do in the top job. But once they’ve had a chance to observe how a person actually functions as chief executive, what he did in his youth matters not at all.
And it is particularly true that after a person has been commander in chief, we could care less if he disobeyed an order to have a physical when he was a kid.
With their eye on the cheering section, not on the playing field, Kerry’s people are throwing negatives because they enjoy it. An anonymous aide even said that it makes their candidate look good to be fighting back. But it accomplishes no political purpose and doesn’t close the gap in the polls. For that, you need a strategy.
But beyond the basic question of whether to run a positive or a negative campaign, Kerry has not solved the core conundrum that has haunted him from the day he won the nomination: whether to run as a hawk or a dove.
His failure to resolve this crucial issue stems from the inherent contradictions of his own candidacy. He is a liberal running in a time of war, a posture that forces him first to tack left and then right to keep both sides of his base in line.
Bush, playing chess, has co-opted the winning turf, vowing toughness on terror and staying the course in Iraq. Half of Kerry’s supporters, according to the Fox News poll, want to pull out of Iraq, but one-third agree with Bush on the war, so Kerry is sunk whichever position he takes.
He’s trying to straddle the issue just like Richard Nixon did on Vietnam during the 1968 election. But he won’t be able to get away with it – not through three face-to-face debates (which Nixon avoided in 1968). In the words of Joe Louis, Kerry will be able to run, but he can’t hide.
Others, supposedly including Bill Clinton, have urged Kerry to stress domestic issues and raise their saliency so he can exploit the innate Democratic edge on these topics. But here, too, Bush has Kerry in check. The issues the Democrat wants to use are being solved even as he speaks about them. Each month brings better economic news. Bush’s prescription-drug program is just beginning to kick in, reducing the viability of the health-care issue. And even as Kerry talks about education, Bush’s historic education reform is upgrading schools across the country.
Lockhart and McCurry face the same problem that Shrum encountered before them: They have a candidate who can’t figure out why he’s running. Kerry doesn’t have a strategy because he doesn’t have an agenda or even clear issue positions.
Bush has no such problem. His voters all agree with his clearly laid-out positions and his opinions about Iraq and terror tap into a broad swath of the American electorate – including many now voting for Kerry. All the president has to do is to articulate his positions clearly and compellingly and he will likely prevail.
Meanwhile, Kerry has to figure out who he is and why he’s running. By late September, you’d better be playing chess, not checkers, if you want to win.