The Fearful Voter

Now is the season of unsolicited advice. Every day, pundits tell John Kerry what he must do to right the course of his campaign and cruise toward victory. Morton Kondracke says Kerry must issue a clear declaration that he is willing to stay in Iraq until the United States prevails. Tim Russert notes that Kerry "has to get the emphasis back on the economy, back on the war on Iraq – make the war on Iraq different and distinguishable from the war on terror and make this campaign a referendum on George Bush." Washington Post reporter Dan Balz observes, "He has to focus his message on Iraq in a way he hasn't been able to . . .. He has to figure out a way to get this debate as much as he possibly can on domestic issues." Others offer helpful tips: push health care, bash Bush, produce a plan for cleaning up Bush's mess in Iraq (as if such a plan would be easy to craft).

I try to stay out of the consulting business. My position is that a worthy presidential candidate ought to be able to win without my help. But it is hard to avoid the low-grade panic seeping through anti-Bush circles. The Swift Vets' unsubstantiated but effective attacks on Kerry and the Republicans' successful convention (celebrating Bush as God's choice to lead a holy war against terrorists) have spooked Dems. They look with fear at the poll numbers – most of which are trending in favor of Bush – and they do not see (within the media coverage of the campaign) strong indications of a kick-ass Kerry campaign. And they justifiably fret and frantically toss out advice. I feel their pain.

But if I were inclined to hurl my own two cents at the Kerry campaign, I do not know what specific advice I would provide. It seems that his campaign and the Bush effort exist in alternate universes. Bush is pushing buttons, and Kerry is trying to score debating points. Saddled with a costly and no-end-in-sight war that he launched under false pretenses – and that most of the public has come to consider a mistake – Bush has made the strategic decision to hail this war as proof he is a strong and decisive leader who can be counted upon to take action (even misguided action!) to protect America. He is promoting fear – or the freedom from it. He is identifying himself and his personal attributes (swagger and all) with the security of the country. What could be a bigger or better message than vote for me and I will keep you safe? As psychologists at Stanford University recently noted after studying 7000 voters who participated in the 2000 election, fear was the number-one motivation for these voters. And that was before 9/11.

Kerry's retort to Bush (and note that it is more parry than thrust) is that W. was "wrong" to launch this war – and "wrong" to promote tax cuts for the rich, "wrong" to neglect the health care crisis, "wrong" to stand by while manufacturing jobs disappeared, "wrong" to do nothing to preserve the ban on assault weapons, "wrong" to let the situation in North Korea deteriorate before addressing it. Kerry is correct on policy grounds. But his critique lacks the psychological punch of Bush's vote-for-me-or-die argument. On one level, Kerry is saying that Bush's decisions have endangered the nation. But he sure ain't saying it on the level where Bush (and Dick Cheney) are playing.

The Democratic convention, with its emphasis on Kerry's Vietnam days, was an attempt to tie Kerry's back-story to the present and convince voters he has the chops to be commander-in-chief. At the time, the strategy seemed to work. But it ignored Kerry's years in the Senate (as a fighter for environmental policies, a champion of abortion rights, a foe of tax cuts tilted toward the rich, and a crusader against the illegal contra war, CIA misdeeds and sleazy international bankers supporting terrorists and drug-runners), and it did not spell out how Kerry's positive traits would lead to different policies and better outcomes in the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terrorism. When the Swift Vets unleashed their unfounded attack upon Kerry's Vietnam experience, he was left with little cover. Truth, unfortunately, was not a sufficient defense.

The recent polls spell trouble for Kerry. Not so much because they grant Bush a lead. What should be most disconcerting for Kerry fans are the respondents' attitudes toward the candidates. An Associated Press/Ipsos poll asked registered voters to assess the character of each nominee. Nearly 75 percent said Bush was "strong"; only 54 percent said that of Kerry. Three-quarters called Bush "decisive"; a measly 37 percent applied that term to Kerry. Bush was seen as more likeable. The only character face-off in which Kerry led Bush was intelligence. Eighty-four percent considered Kerry smart; 63 percent reported they believe Bush is "intelligent."

The flip-flop attack mounted by the Bushies seems to have drawn blood. But there's worse news for Kerry. Asked what was a more important priority – "protecting the country" or "creating jobs" – two-thirds went with national security. And who would be better at protecting the country? Bush beat Kerry 59 to 36 percent. Kerry had a smaller lead – 50 to 44 percent – on the jobs-creation match-up.

A Newsweek poll produced similar results. People thought Kerry was smarter, but that Bush was stronger. While the same number – just over half – said that Bush and Kerry were each "honest and ethical," 66 percent said that Bush speaks his mind, but only 45 percent considered Kerry a straight-talker. In this poll, terrorism rated as the leading priority, too. And the respondents trusted Bush to do a better job than Kerry on both the war in Iraq (54 to 39 percent) and the war on terrorism (58 to 34 percent). As for dealing with the economy, Kerry had no advantage over Bush. These numbers were echoed in a Time poll, too. Only 52 percent said they trusted Kerry to lead the war on terrorism. Two-thirds reported they trusted Bush to do so. But here's the kicker: Asked if U.S. actions in Iraq have made the world safer 44 percent said yes, and 46 percent said no. (Back in July, the safer-to not-safer split was worse for Bush: 37 to 55 percent.) So apparently majority of the folks believe that the nation is on the wrong track and that Bush's war in Iraq has been a bust. Yet they see Bush as a strong commander in chief and trust him to carry on.

No one ever said voting was logical.

Given this, what's Kerry to do? How can he demonstrate he is strong and decisive at this point? He may not be able to – at least not in the sense that he can order a bombing raid. With his rational critique of Bush's policies, Kerry can show that he is the smarter Yalie. But apparently being intelligent is not good enough for the average voter. And while Kerry can try to zero in an domestic issues to prove he will be a better deal for American families, the polling data suggests that voters may be more attuned to talk of security than to talk of 401(k)s. Besides, Kerry has to operate within the known media world, and often the national media pay less attention to such wonkish matters as health care coverage. In any event, this is not a contest of one set of policies versus a competing set. It's one guy against another guy.

I don't mean to be a Cassandra. But Kerry is facing tough dynamics at the moment. Kerry-yearners looking for positive signs can take hope from the fact that he is only trailing Bush by five points in a couple of national polls after several awful weeks for him and several great weeks for Bush. And the debates are to come. Still, it is unlikely that Kerry will change the contours of the contest and, say, transform it into a referendum on health care. He must directly address Bush's argument – that is, turn his boat into the incoming fire and fire back. He cannot cede the I-am-stronger turf to Bush. He has to find a way to fight Bush on this psychological territory. That might require a more direct attack on Bush, charging him with botching his primary mission and placing America in a less safe position. Kerry took such shots at Bush during the primaries, but he has not issued such volleys with much force lately. And his less-than-artful explanations of his Iraq position have been a burden he cannot seem to shake.

But I am not giving advice. Outsiders can perhaps help Kerry identify and clarify the severe challenge he faces. But I doubt they can provide him the roadmap to reach the obvious goals. He has to make the connection with voters. He has to address their fears (which are flamed by the Bush camp). He has to convince. And he has to do it soon.

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