What Kerry and the Democrats haven't done and must do now
Carlton M. Caves
2004 September 30

As John Kerry heads into the first televised debate with President Bush tonight, a debate which everyone seems to think is crucial for reviving Senator Kerry's fortunes, it's important to try to understand how Senator Kerry got into the present situation, what might have been done to avoid it, and what now needs to be done to recover.

The President's record is truly awful, the worst in my lifetime (a life that starts with Truman). He's ignorant, reckless, and incompetent and holds up his stubbornness in sticking with failed policies as a virtue that he calls "decisiveness." How did he manage to draw the public's attention away from his record of utter failure and to focus that attention instead on his own characterization of John Kerry's qualifications for President? He did this by relentlessly characterizing Kerry as indecisive---the sound bite for this is "flip-flopper." According to the polls, most of the public still doesn't know Kerry's positions on major issues, but they do think he's a flip-flopper, because the President and his campaign and their lackeys in the conservative media have said so over and over again for the seven months since it became clear that Kerry would be the Democratic nominee.

What should Kerry and the Democrats have done? Beginning last spring, the Democrats should have stuck with one theme: "The President doesn't tell the truth to the American people." On the environment, the President claims to be good steward, while his administration weakens clear-air and clean-water regulations and standards and trashes the West by subordinating all environmental concerns to exploitation of the West's energy resources. On the economy, the President has just one policy, tax cuts for the wealthy under all circumstances, a policy he presents as aimed at job creation, but whose real aim is to cripple the federal government and to concentrate money and power in the hands of the wealthy and corporate elites that are his natural constituency. On the war on terrorism, the President makes soaring claims to be promoting democracy around the world as the best way to fight terrorism, whereas the record shows that he and his administration know how to use military force to occupy a country, but don't have a clue how to build a democracy out of local materials. Meanwhile, the terrorist organizations that we ought to be focused on destroying are finding that the President's failed policies in Iraq are opening up fertile new ground for their operations in Iraq and elsewhere. On Iraq, the President has been all over the map in justifying the war, both before and after the beginning of hostilities. None of the President's predictions and promises has come to pass, except for the capture of Saddam Hussein. The reason the President and his allies focus so persistently on the capture of Hussein, repeating over and over again that the world is safer for his removal from power, is that it is the only accomplishment they have to point to. But what a price for this accomplishment: the capture of Saddam, now known to have been a toothless threat with no connections to Al Qaeda, is supposed to justify the loss of over 1,000 American lives and many more Iraqi lives and the spending of nearly $200 billion, and we're still counting; our efforts could have been focused on the actual terrorist organizations, but instead we now face an incipient disaster in Iraq, a disaster that the President professes not even to see.

Since last spring, Kerry and the Democrats should have been focused ruthlessly on establishing in the public's mind that the President doesn't tell the truth to the American people, that he has a credibility gap that dwarfs the one that drove Lyndon Johnson from office. This should have been the theme at the Democratic National Convention, repeated over and over again. With this slogan echoing in their heads, the public might have been less prepared to believe the lies and distortions of Senator Kerry's record put out by the President, the Vice President, the speakers at the GOP convention, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. With this slogan as backdrop, Kerry and the Democrats would have been ready, first, to highlight the President's record of failure by describing what he and the Republicans actually are doing and, second, to move on to a description of their own plans for the country.

Perhaps it's not too late for this strategy to be used. My own recommendation is that Senator Kerry answer nearly every question about national policy in the three debates in the following format: "The President needs to tell the truth to the American people, and he hasn't been doing that. Here's what he's actually been doing and how it has failed. Here's my plan to do better." It is crucial for Senator Kerry to rip away the veil of distortion and deception that the President drapes over his policies and actions, and this done, it's equally important for him to say how he can do better.

The only issues for which this format doesn't work are those of the social conservative agenda. These tend to fall into two categories, sex- and sexuality-related issues and church-state relations. The issues that Republicans are pushing hardest now are in the first category, an anti-choice agenda on abortion and opposition to gay marriage, but one shouldn't forget that erosion of the barrier between church and state is never far from their minds. On these questions, President Bush actually does tell us exactly what he wants to do, and the response must be to draw distinctions clearly: "Here's his position. Here's mine, and here's why mine is better."

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