By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
I. THE STATE OF PLAY
It’s the halfway point in the Republican convention, and the Democratic nervousness is palpable. It’s not that the Republicans have much of a message, but they’ve been playing it over and over since the Democratic convention. The message has come in two parts. For most of August, the so-called Swift Boat Veterans for Truth insisted that John Kerry had not been a credible leader in Vietnam and would be a disaster of a leader today. (All evidence — chiefly, the testimony of the men Kerry actually led — to the contrary notwithstanding.)
Now it’s September, and what we’ve learned so far at the Republican convention is that George W. Bush, by contrast, exhibits firm, resolute, determined leadership. Those are the words, and assertions, that have run through the four main speeches of the convention so far — John McCain’s, Rudy Giuliani’s, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Laura Bush’s. What none of them has particularly cared to discuss is Bush’s actual record. Karl Rove has taken pains to ensure that no reminders of the ongoing war in Iraq will pop up; Donald Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, Colin Powell are nowhere to be seen. And as for the state of the economy — are you kidding?
As the Bush people see it, they win if this election is all about character, by which they mean their portrait of their candidate as steadfastness personified and their portrait of Kerry as a lying weasel whose Vietnam service they “honor” even while suggesting he faked his wounds. Thus the steady elevation of “leadership” over all other considerations, a theme hammered on relentlessly Monday night by both Giuliani and McCain. There might be times, Giuliani allowed, when issues mattered, but “in times of danger, as we are now in, Americans should put leadership at the core of their decision.”
Up to a point, the GOP’s game plan is working. Coming out of the Boston convention, Kerry led Bush by 8 percent when voters were asked which of the two would be a better commander-in-chief. But in a poll in Tuesday’s Washington Post, Bush is now ahead by 10 points on the same question. (On the question of presidential preference, the poll has the two candidates tied at 48 percent each.)
Democrats are starting to get that queasy feeling that it’s all slipping away. Tuesday was filled with rumors that the Kerry campaign was about to undergo a major shake-up — that campaign strategist Bob Shrum and communications director Stephanie Cutter were on the way out — rumors that campaign sources pooh-poohed. But in the wake of weeks of unanswered Swift Boat slanders, Democrats were pondering how the Kerry campaign could have thought it didn’t need to fire back.
The failure, until the past week, to set up a rapid-response war room has triggered a larger anxiety about Kerry’s campaign: that it is all inoculation and no offense. The presentiment is largely true, but that doesn’t mean the Kerry campaign need remain that way.
Indeed, the best antidote for Democratic panic is to read the polling on whether Americans think their nation is headed in the right direction, or the economy sound, or the war in Iraq a good idea. The fundamentals still favor the challenger. And the primary question of the campaign’s final two months is whether the challenger can return the discussion to the fundamentals.
For their part, the Bushies want to turn this contest into a mandate on machismo, and they do so with some very specific swing voters in mind. Giuliani’s ode to construction workers in his Monday night speech marked one reaching out to this group; so did the video feed earlier that evening of a dissident firefighter local in Wisconsin, whose president said that his members would follow Bush into a burning building.
In fact, Bush has led them into a burning building of a sort: The economy that’s been home to blue-collar white males is now fully engulfed. In the battleground states of the industrial Midwest, an entire stratum of work has been eliminated, either shipped abroad or simply shut down. The Bushies’ hope is that downscale Midwestern men will overlook such trivialities and vote as downscale white male Southern cousins have for time immemorial — indifferent to their own, or the nation’s, economic interests, focusing solely on their cultural affinities to right-wing candidates and their cultural antipathies to left-wing ones. The Bush strategy is plausible only because the industrial unions of the Midwest have been so decimated. The voter mobilization programs of such Democratic “527” groups as America Coming Together are really directed at providing a political equivalent for those once-powerful unions, endeavoring to persuade these voters that embracing a macho leader only makes sense when he’s actually on their side.
John Kerry will have ample opportunity to make that case in the forthcoming debates. It shouldn’t be that hard, not with every economic indicator highlighting just how embattled the middle class actually is, and with a war in Iraq that has no plausible end point. A little populism from the Democratic nominee would go a long way over the next two months, and though it’s not Kerry’s first language, he has been known to speak it fluently enough.