Lackluster Bounce from Lackluster Speech

In the several weeks since the end of the Democratic National Convention, there has been ample time to analyze why Sen. John Kerry received such a small bounce after his acceptance speech.

Despite the initially favorable opinions most pundits expressed about the speech, other commentators are saying that Kerry might have committed a serious error in focusing too much on his military record and not enough on jobs, an Iraq exit strategy and health care.

I agree that John Kerry has stumbled, not fallen, but that his failure to boost his public acceptance following his nomination should be a cause of serious concern.

Until the Democratic Convention, the Iraq war had been Bush’s biggest strength as well as his biggest weakness. Those who admire military toughness support Bush, while others, including those concerned about casualties, and the gap between promises made going into the war and the realities on the ground, believe the president has failed.

Until his speech in Boston, the war had not damaged Kerry’s popularity.

Challenging a sitting president’s war policy is never easy. It is politically fatal to “play politics” with national security, and advocating for an immediate exit plan can be seen as a sign of weak leadership, at best, or even cowardice, at worst. Commentators like Dick Morris of the New York Post think Bush has the war and the terrorism issue locked up. These pundits predict the president’s re-election prospects benefit from an atmosphere of increased tensions, domestic security warnings and victories in Iraq.

At the Democratic Convention, the war was everywhere and it was nowhere. The Kerry campaign brought the former Navy lieutenant’s Vietnam boatmates to the stage before his speech. Kerry then talked at length about his Vietnam service: “I will wage this war with the lessons I learned in war.”

But little was said about those specific lessons from a war that demanded an exit strategy. Such a plan for Iraq will depend on international cost-sharing and military deployments. Many experts think this will never happen.

The most Kerry promised in his speech was to strengthen the armed services by adding 40,000 new troops, which will not be sent to Iraq.

Indications are that Kerry does not expect to withdraw from Iraq any time soon. He thinks his diplomatic skills will lead to an Iraqi occupation that is acceptable to the Iraqi and American public. He told the Los Angeles Times that he is optimistic about European support if elected because he would offer tangible inducements like naming a U.N. high commissioner to supervise the creation of a new government, and giving allies “greater access” to reconstruction contracts. He might call an international conference to achieve international unity. Diplomatic maneuvering may be part of the solution to the war, but I suspect Americans want to hear that an international conference will be called to end the war, not to make it acceptable.

For all his foreign policy experience, the Massachusetts senator seems to endorse Bush’s handling of the war by never sharply criticizing it. He has compounded the problem by endorsing the 9/11 Commission report instead of calling it a basis for ongoing decision-making. One of the report’s key recommendations was for the executive branch to define the enemy. Imagine a president who went to war without ever telling us who we were fighting, as the commission found to be the case. Kerry has many ways to approach the Iraq war without taking a position on when the troops will come home. But so far he hasn’t really criticized Bush’s current posture.

David Broder, an astute political commentator for the Washington Post, believes that Kerry’s convention speech may have left the voters feeling “cheated.” He “left unanswered what might be the single biggest question on the minds of undecided voters: What exactly would Kerry do differently to bring the bloodshed in Iraq to an end and secure a stable democracy there? The answer, apparently, is to ask allies for more help, but that calls for a leap of faith. It is not a political strategy.”

Many agree that Kerry spoke too long about his childhood and not long enough about his legislative record in the Senate. Immediately after the convention, the Bush campaign began highlighting this mistake in its attack ads. By failing to articulate a clear political philosophy, Kerry’s speech didn’t clearly show how his administration would differ from the current administration in addressing certain key issues, most importantly Iraq.

The Broder view places a political premium on rhetoric and “being on message.” Dick Morris thinks Kerry should stress traditional Democratic themes like protecting Medicaid and Social Security. Kevin Phillips prefers a red-meat approach, picking issues such as campaign and election reform, opposition to the religious right and the undue influence of K Street lobbyists that highlight the argument that wealthy, far-right Americans have Bush in their pocket. Phillips wanted a speech that would have had Democratic delegates standing on their chairs cheering and encouraged GOP desertions. This rationale is based on the premise that there are many Bush voters in states like Ohio, New Mexico and New Hampshire who are unhappy Republicans. These voters signaled their independence from the GOP mainstream by voting for McCain in 2000 and Perot in earlier presidential elections.

Broder was one of the first commentators to call Kerry’s speech a “lost opportunity,” but in the days following the convention, a growing number of observers have joined him, reducing their opinion of the speech from around an A- to somewhere in the B-range.

With 24 million viewers watching the speech, a larger audience than Al Gore had four years earlier, America was clearly interested. Apparently after watching, few changed their minds. Not until September 30 will Kerry get another chance to address the nation, and then only while sharing the stage with Bush.

Kerry still enjoys a slight lead in most opinion polls, but the race is so close that Ralph Nader could still be the margin of difference in certain key states. A Kerry speech that won over America would have made Nader’s candidacy irrelevant. The Democratic Leadership Council, a moderate political group that often favors cooperating with the Republicans, lauded Kerry’s speech.

Kerry’s convention performance has had one intended effect—it places enormous pressure on Bush to do better. In the past, Bush has been unable to invoke patriotic appeals to rally Americans behind his administration over a sustained period of time. At Madison Square Garden, however, the stakes will be much higher.

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