Monday, August 30, 2004

I had a conversation a couple months ago with a colleague, a political scientist, in which we were comparing notes on the presidential election. These were not George W. Bush’s best days. Nevertheless, he noted, every model that political scientists use to predict the outcome of presidential elections pointed to a Bush victory, based on the strength of the economy. There was one potential anomaly, and that was the wartime character of the Bush re-election bid.

Well,I agreed. But I thought there was a factor not reflected in the political science models, and that was the question of the quality of the candidate. It seemed to me that John Kerry was a weak candidate and campaigner. And by contrast, George W. Bush was generally rather effective in getting a message across.

My colleague was unimpressed. He said that the models assumed an optimal campaign by both candidates (and that this may have been one of the reasons for trouble with the 2000 predictions of an Al Gore victory) and that, generally speaking, such an assumption was justified. After all, don’t the people who run campaigns for a living know what they are doing?

With all due respect, no, they don’t, at least often enough to matter. The proof of this is John Kerry’s summer.

The Democratic convention, in retrospect, was a glass half-empty. Organizers correctly realized that they had a huge anger management issue on their hands, and to their credit, they handled it well. Several thousand people, including delegates and hangers-on, most of whom loathe George W. Bush viscerally, managed to keep their passions in check well enough to avoid alienating the majority of Americans (including just about all of those whose votes are up for grabs) who don’t share their sense of disgust toward the incumbent.

Unfortunately, what the check on the Bush-bashing chiefly revealed was the presence of absence: What exactly was or is the point of the John Kerry campaign? Why is it urgent for Americans to pull the lever for him? What is the Democratic agenda?

I don’t know whether Democrats have answers to these questions or not — beyond, that is, their passionate desire to beat Mr. Bush because of what they take to be his intrinsic loathsomeness. But if you have in mind that your real reason is not one you can safely put on the table — namely, again, Mr. Bush’s loathsomeness — you are going to have to find something else.

Well, Mr. Kerry settled on his Vietnam service. And there it was, about as front-and-center at the convention as it was humanly possible to make it: “Reporting for duty” and all. It was almost as if we were watching an inversion of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy “Coriolanus.” In Shakespeare’s version, a haughty Roman general and war hero wants public office but won’t pander to the common men by showing them his battle scars. In Mr. Kerry’s version — call it “The Triumph of Coriolanus,” rather than the tragedy — our equally haughty hero stands before the plebeian crowds, shows off his wounds with pride and is accordingly elected consul by acclamation.

But biography is the past — or at best prologue. The question is what comes next. And in this context, Mr. Kerry was largely silent. I know, some will point to all the position papers the campaign has produced, and the intelligence of its advisers and the lines of substance about what lies ahead that actually were uttered during the convention and in the intervening weeks.

It doesn’t matter. No one remembers a word of it. And the reason is that the biographical material crowded it all off stage. Yes, of course, Mr. Kerry needed to “introduce” himself to the American people. But that is not all he needed to do. It is now apparent that what should have been an elegant backdrop to the substantive case for a Kerry administration became itself the case in chief. To mix my theatrical metaphor, never mind the play: Look at the sets. Look at the actor.

“Reporting for duty” grows more illustrative of the problem by the day: Democrats may have summoned him, thought it’s odd for him to take that view: Does he really think that their selection of him as nominee was little more than right and proper, for which he owes no gratitude? But Americans have not summoned him, at least not yet. Mr. Kerry has been acting as though they had. He concluded his speech as follows: “I will work my heart out. But, my fellow citizens, the outcome is in your hands more than mine. It is time to reach for the next dream. It is time to look to the next horizon. For America, the hope is there. The sun is rising. Our best days are still to come.” Very good. Now, where is the part in which, with due humility, he asks people to vote for him?

Missing. Mr. Kerry has to a make a case for himself grounded in something other than his personal excellence. That, my fellow citizens, is in his hands.

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