- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

Attempting to turn a seeminglyleaden John Kerry into political gold, the Democrats’ alchemists have endeavored to fuse two seemingly divergent elements of 20th century national politics into one coherent strategy — the vague Richard Nixon of 1968 and the embattled Harry Truman of 1948. Echoes of both campaigns can be clearly discerned in the contemporary Kerry strategy. Though the scripts may be remarkably similar, the 2004 campaign has substantially less in common with the precedent campaigns of 1968 or 1948.

Most startling to anyone familiar with the history is the near-perfect fungibility of the Kerry strategy and the Nixon strategy. Mr. Nixon’s 1968 campaign theme was an amorphousmessageof “unity” in the midst of the war in Southeast Asia; Mr. Kerry’s campaign theme is a vague notion of “hope” in the midst of a polarized electorate and a difficult worldwide war on terrorism.

As then-President Johnson wallowed in the jungles of Vietnam, Mr. Nixon stayed out of sight; when a viciously partisan press hound President Bush over Iraq, Mr. Kerry disappears into a political grotto. A staunch anti-Communist, Mr. Nixon used his convention address to present himself as a wartime moderate, reiterating his confounding call for “unity”; Mr. Kerry, rated the “most liberal senator” by the nonpartisan National Journal, used his convention to obfuscate his radical roots and record from Americans, repeating his elusive message of “hope.”

Like Mr. Nixon, derided for his “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War, Mr. Kerry has a “secret plan” of his own; Mr. Kerry’s message is “elect me and find out what I’ll do.” Both candidates have been woefully short on specifics, hoping thattheiropponents would/will be undermined by the natural course of events instead of by substantive opposition. Both candidates promised forthcoming solutions for perceived national problems in an attempt to win over independent or wavering voters. Mr. Nixon was, and Mr. Kerry is, banking on the tide of fate and unscrupulously cultivating opportunism for electoral advantage. However, there are significant differences between the America of Mr. Kerry and that of Mr. Nixon.

In 1968, the Democrats had been badly splintered by the Vietnam War and Mr. Johnson’s handling of it. They exacerbated their problems by waging a bitter primary. In 2004, Mr. Bush is running unopposed for the Republican nomination. The Republican Party, despite apparent attempts by the media to manufacture wedge issues using “push stories,” is united behind Mr. Bush. Even the most liberal Republican will concede how untenable the thought of a Kerry presidency is. No push story (i.e., a media-manufactured story titled “Republicans Angry at Bush Over XYZ”) can possibly disabuse Republicans of their basic belief that Mr. Kerry is too dangerously incompetent for an America at war to be a viable alternative.

In 1968, voters were relatively uninformed in comparison to the average voter in 2004 — generally an avid consumer of information from multiple mediums. It seems unlikely that today’s more information-savvy voters will allow themselves to be deceived by candidates campaigning on ambiguity. They want real solutions, not vague promises. Most have alternatives to the media establishment, such as the Internet. An ambiguous candidate will be left with a credibility gap as well as a vote gap.

Mr. Kerry’s post-convention tactics have added a splash of Harry Truman to their base of Mr. Nixon. In 1948, President Truman’s Democrats were divided by the Dixiecrats in the South and the Communists in the North. Mr. Truman partially mitigated his dilemma by railing against the Republican Congress instead of his actual GOP opponent, Thomas Dewey, who today would be regarded as left-of-center.

To score political points with the public, Mr. Truman set out to prove that the Republicans were more conservative than they portrayed themselves at their convention. So, he called Congress back into session after that convention, daring Republicans to enact their allegedly moderate party platform. The president’s ruse worked, and the public thus came to associate the more moderate Mr. Dewey with the rightist ideology of congressional Republicans, to his detriment.

After the Democrats’ July convention, Mr. Bush quickly vowed to enact the September 11 commission’s recommendations. Trying to create the illusion that the president’s call to action is a bluff, Mr. Kerry has co-opted and perverted Mr. Truman’s play, asking the president to call a special session of Congress to enact the panel’s recommendations.

Mr. Kerry’s error in employing this particular Truman strategy is that he immediately opened himself up to renewed criticisms of his Senate attendance. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay quickly made light of Mr. Kerry’s demand by asking whether the senator himself planned to show up. More pointedly, unlike Mr. Kerry, who believes there is a political motive behind every action, Mr. Bush seems quite serious when it comes to fighting the very real war against international terrorism.

Ultimately, that fundamental miscalculation may be Mr. Kerry’s undoing.

Jonathan M. Stein is a third-year law student at Hofstra University.

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