Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Kerry's Real Challenge

EJ Dionne, Jr. in today's Washington Post, lays out Kerry's true test over the coming weeks before the election:

...whether he can explain himself clearly and whether he can force Bush to defend views that the president would prefer that the public not know he holds.

While Democrats have gotten better at it, the President is certainly winning this war of words lately, whether it be Kerry's taking the bait when Bush challenged him to answer whether he would have voted for the Iraq War if he'd known then what he knows now, or Cheney's attack on Kerry's claim that he can wage a more "sensitive" war on terror. But as Dionne notes, Kerry should be winning this political war.
When John Kerry said he still would have voted to give the president the authority to wage war in Iraq, the Bushies accused Kerry of being a flip-flopper. How can sticking with a past vote make you a flip-flopper?
Kerry has said he would repeal the parts of the Bush tax cuts that favor Americans earning more than $200,000 a year. But Bush continues to scare people by implying that Kerry wants to raise taxes on everybody. "We are not going to let him wreck that economy by running up our taxes," Bush told a crowd in Beaverton, Ore., last Friday. The president left unmentioned that the "our" in that sentence referred to the president himself and to his wealthy contributors -- but not to most Americans.
But when Kerry is handed ammunition on a silver platter, such as a Congressional Budget Office report that concluded that one-third of Bush's tax cuts over the past three years went to people who earned an average of $1.2 million annually or Bush's suggestion that a national sales tax was "an interesting idea that we ought to explore seriously," Dionne notes, he is unable to capitalize on it. And in fact, not only does Kerry need a stronger offense against Bush, but a better defense as well, especially on his Iraq vote, which still dogs him:
When Bush went to Congress in the fall of 2002 for authorization to go to war in Iraq, he did so after saying he was going to the United Nations to seek international support for a war against Saddam Hussein. Yes, the congressional resolution empowering Bush to wage war was far broader than it should have been. But when push came to shove, Kerry decided to take the chance in voting "yes" to strengthen Bush's hand in negotiating with the United Nations. That seeking U.N. support was never really a Bush priority and that he botched the postwar planning is the president's problem, not Kerry's. Why can't Kerry keep it that simple?

Which brings us to Kerry's biggest challenge against George W Bush, keeping things simple. Unlike his opponent, John Kerry has that curse of all curses: he sees complexity in issues. As his friend and colleague Joe Biden put it:
John is substantively more sure-footed than he is politically adept. My plea to John is: ‘John, I don’t want to hear you explain another fucking thing. Be declarative.’ And he’ll say to me, ‘Well, I’ll say it and explain it.’ I say, ‘Don’t explain it! Say it! Question and answer, period.’
It is exactly George Bush's tendency to see (and more importantly, communicate) issues in black and white terms that makes him so effective as a politician. His definitiveness strikes people as resolute and his views are bumpersticker-ready. So John Kerry's struggle comes down to this: while there are far worse qualities one can have in a president than seeing an issue's complexity, it would seem there are few worse qualities one could wish for in a presidential candidate. Let's hope Kerry is able to rise to the challenge.


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