Anatomy of a Crushing Political Defeat

This election was not stolen. It was lost by the Kerry campaign. The reason it's so important to make this crystal clear – even as Kerry's concession speech is still ringing in our ears – is that to the victors go not only the spoils but the explanations. And the Republicans are framing their victory as the triumph of conservative moral values and the wedge cultural issues they exploited throughout the campaign.

But it wasn't gay marriage that did the Democrats in; it was the fatal decision to make the pursuit of undecided voters the overarching strategy of the Kerry campaign.

This meant that at every turn the campaign chose caution over boldness so as not to offend the undecideds who, as a group, long to be soothed and reassured rather than challenged and inspired.

The fixation on undecided voters turned a campaign that should have been about big ideas, big decisions, and the very, very big differences between the worldviews of John Kerry and George Bush – both on national security and domestic priorities – into a narrow trench war fought over ludicrous non-issues like whether Kerry had bled enough to warrant a Purple Heart. This timid, spineless, walking-on-eggshells strategy – with no central theme or moral vision – played right into the hands of the Bush-Cheney team's portrayal of Kerry as an unprincipled, equivocating flip-flopper who, in a time of war and national unease, stood for nothing other than his desire to become president.

The Republicans spent a hundred million dollars selling this image of Kerry to the public. But the public would not have bought it if the Kerry campaign had run a bold, visionary race that at every moment and every corner contradicted the caricature.

Kerry's advisors were so obsessed with not upsetting America's fence-sitting voters they ended up driving the Kerry bandwagon straight over the edge of the Grand Canyon, where the candidate proclaimed that even if he knew then what we all know now – that there were no WMDs in Iraq – he still would have voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq.

This equivocation was not an accidental slip. It was the result of a strategic decision – once again geared to undecided voters – not to take a decisive, contrary position on Iraq. In doing so, the Kerry camp failed to recognize that this election was a referendum on the president's leadership on the war on terror. (Jamie Rubin, who had been hired by the campaign as a foreign-policy advisor, went so far as to tell the Washington Post that Kerry, too, would likely have invaded Iraq.)

It was only after the polls started going south for Kerry, with the president opening a double-digit lead according to some surveys, that his campaign began to rethink this disastrous approach. The conventional wisdom had it that it was the Swift Boat attacks that were responsible for Kerry's late-summer drop in the polls but, in fact, it was the vacuum left by the lack of a powerful opposing narrative to the president's message on the war on terror – and whether Iraq was central to it – that allowed the attacks on Kerry's leadership and war record to take root.

We got a hint of what might have been when Kerry temporarily put aside the obsession with undecideds and gave a bold, unequivocal speech at New York University on Sept. 20 eviscerating the president's position on Iraq. This speech set the scene for Kerry's triumph in the first debate.

Once Kerry belatedly began taking on the president on the war on terror and the war on Iraq – "wrong war, wrong place, wrong time" – he started to prevail on what the president considered his unassailable turf.

You would have thought that keeping up this line of attack day in and day out would have clearly emerged as the winning strategy – especially since the morning papers and the nightly news were filled with stories on the tragic events in Iraq, the CIA's no al Qaeda/Saddam link report, and the Duelfer no-WMDs report.

Instead, those in charge of the Kerry campaign ignored this giant, blood-red elephant standing in the middle of the room and allowed themselves to be mesmerized by polling and focus group data that convinced them that domestic issues like jobs and health care were the way to win.

The Clintonistas who were having a greater and greater sway over the campaign – including Joe Lockhart, James Carville and the former president himself – were convinced it was "the economy, stupid" all over again, which dovetailed perfectly with the beliefs of chief strategist Bob Shrum and campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill.

But what worked for Clinton in the '90s completely failed Kerry in 2004, at a time of war, fear and anxiety about more terrorist attacks. And even when it came to domestic issues, the message was tailored to the undecideds. Bolder, more passionate language that Kerry had used during the primary – like calling companies hiding their profits in tax shelters "the Benedict Arnolds of corporate America" – was dropped for fear of scaring off undecideds and Wall Street. Or was it Wall Street undecideds? ("This was very unfortunate language," Roger Altman, Clinton's Deputy Treasury Secretary told me during the campaign. "We've buried it." And indeed, the phrase was quickly and quietly deleted from the Kerry Web site.) Sure, Kerry spoke about Iraq until the end (how could he not?), but the majority of the speeches, press releases and ads coming out of the campaign, including Kerry's radio address to the nation 10 days before the election, were on domestic issues.

The fact that Kerry lost in Ohio, which had seen 232,000 jobs evaporate and 114,000 people lose their health insurance during the Bush years, shows how wrong was the polling data the campaign based its decisions on.

With Iraq burning, WMDs missing, jobs at Herbert Hoover-levels, flu shots nowhere to be found, gas prices through the roof, and Osama bin Laden back on the scene looking tanned, rested, and ready to rumble, this should have been a can't-lose election for the Democrats. Especially since they were more unified than ever before, had raised as much money as the Republicans, and were appealing to a country where 55 percent of voters believed we were headed in the wrong direction.

But lose it they did.

So the question inevitably becomes: What now?

Already there are those in the party convinced that, in the interest of expediency, Democrats need to put forth more "centrist" candidates – i.e. Republican-lite candidates – who can make inroads in the all-red middle of the country.

I'm sorry to pour salt on raw wounds, but isn't that what Tom Daschle did? He even ran ads showing himself hugging the president! But South Dakotans refused to embrace this lily-livered tactic. Because, ultimately, copycat candidates fail in the way "me-too" brands do.

Unless the Democratic Party wants to become a permanent minority party, there is no alternative but to return to the idealism, boldness and generosity of spirit that marked the presidencies of FDR and JFK and the short-lived presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy.

Otherwise, the Republicans will continue their winning ways, convincing tens of millions of hard working Americans to vote for them even as they cut their services and send their children off to die in an unjust war.

Democrats have a winning message. They just have to trust it enough to deliver it. This time they clearly didn't.


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