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What's Kerry Thinking?

Nicholas Johnson
May 15, 2004

Note: After this piece was written and posted, a number of somewhat confirming comments of others have come to my attention.

Richard Reeves, "Bush is the Issue," Universal Press Syndicate, May 13, 2004, appeared in a local paper May 18. Reeves writes, ""Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme in Campaign Against Bush' . . . it seems the Times runs that headline almost every day . . . Well, how about this for a theme: 'I am not George W. Bush!'" Click on the link for the full text.

On May 17, 2004, the online multi-million-member launched a campaign for its members to "Ask John Kerry to 'Go Big.'" As its Web page explained, "As George Bush's poll numbers drop, John Kerry is facing an important choice perhaps the most important choice he'll make in his campaign. He has to decide whether, as some consultants will urge, he should be cautious, or whether he should present a bold agenda for change and rally all Americans around a common vision for our future." For more on the campaign go to

Arianna Huffington pursues a similar theme in her May 19, 2004, column, "John Kerry and Bobby Kennedy's Unfinished Mission."

Finally, this editorial cartoon of Steve Sack's appeared in the Des Moines Register, May 16, 2004. It shows a Democrat watching a lava lamp labeled "Kerry on the Issues," saying "AWWW!! It's gone all squishy again."

Steve Sack, "Squishy," Minneapolis Star Tribune, May 11, 2004, available at, is copyright by the Star Tribune,, and is used here as a fair use reproduction for non-commercial educational purposes only.

Dan Ellsberg, the 1960s anti-war activist who revealed The Pentagon Papers report on Vietnam (and whose current book is called Secrets), said at an early May Kerry fundraiser in Berkeley, "I agree with everything Ralph Nader says except 'Vote for me.'"

But Democrats who feel that way (as well as voters who agree with the "Vote for me" part as well) have to be asking themselves "What on earth is the Kerry Campaign's strategy?"

They have to have one. Kerry is a bright and politically experienced and savvy guy. His senate and campaign staffs are made up of able people. The DNC and DLC have a lot of combined experience, including the Clinton successes.

So I know they have a strategy. It's just not clear to me what it is.

From where I watch they are (a) turning their backs on the liberal wing of the party (including an absence of proposals designed to help and appeal to the poor, working poor, working class, and lower middle class electoral majorities), (b) using a rhetoric that deals in vacuous phrasing and platitudes, and (c) positioning the candidate as close as possible to Bush on as many issues as possible.

The polls seem to indicate that public support is declining for what Bush is doing in Iraq and with the economy. Although this hasn't had as much impact on voters' willingness to re-elect Bush as one would think it might, that support is waning as well. On the other hand, these numbers don't seem to be having as much impact on increasing Kerry's numbers -- which may, nonetheless, be enough to beat Bush.

So, what can one make of this?

What follows is not my recommendation of a winning campaign strategy, one I would necessarily support -- nor a criticism of a strategy. It is simply an effort to come up with a theory, and a description, of what the Kerry strategists might be thinking.

"This election is not going to be won by Kerry; it is going to be lost by Bush. No matter what Kerry says and does, it is going to be a referendum on Bush's performance. Aside from old friends and new enthusiasts for Kerry, few will be voting "for" him. Conservative ideologues will vote for Bush regardless; Yellow Dog Democrats will vote against Bush regardless. The battle is over the increasingly smaller number of potential voters who are undecided or independent. The interests and emotional responses of those relatively few (though essential) voters are so totally all over the political/policy lot that anything Kerry says or does to try to win them over is likely to lose as many of them as he gains. Therefore, the strategy should be to say as little of substance as possible, lest whatever might be said risks losing a voter who might have otherwise voted against Bush. If Kerry says something that alienates that voter, he or she may end up voting for Nader, or not at all, or for Bush. Thus, Kerry should say and do things that make him as vacuous, impossible to pigeon-hole, and as small a target as possible. To the extent he says or does anything, it should be designed to make him as much of a Bush look-alike as possible, virtually indistinguishable as he snuggles up close to him and disappears into the woodwork. The goal should be to keep the focus on what Bush has done, especially things he has done that people tend not to like. There is simply nothing to be gained by Kerry's distinguishing himself from Bush in ways that open him to attacks from the Bush camp, or other offended constituencies."
This strategy is, of course, one that can be pursued until election day itself, or only used until, say, late September, following which a more precise and pointed set of proposals and criticisms of Bush could be undertaken.

Am I close? Totally off target? If so, what explanation would you offer for what they're doing; how would you express the strategy? "Inquiring minds want to know" -- at least some inquiring Democratic Party minds around Eastern Iowa.