October Surprise: Kerry With Peaceniks and Rednecks

Okay, Kerry won the debate. Now what? John Kerry, the candidate, did his job. Now the Kerry campaign must make the most of these gains.

Don’t expect miracles—changes in public attitudes don’t happen overnight. Kerry fell behind this summer over a period of many weeks. It will take time to rebound. After the Democratic Convention, Kerry lost the backing of many veterans. After the Republican Convention, Kerry’s support among women slipped.

The dishonest Swift Boat ads that questioned Kerry’s Vietnam service record did not make veterans change their mind. The attacks solidified an impression that started with the Democrats’ convention. For several decades, Americans had moved Vietnam out of politics by the simple expedient of saying it didn’t matter any longer.

The consensus that emerged was that it was a difficult period and people made their choices. Americans declined to judge each other. The war was discussed, but the divisive arguments were muted. Vietnam veterans supported each other, but did so privately. They recognized that opinions about the war differed sharply and respected each other’s views.

Kerry exhibited a tin ear for that compromise with a flashy display at the Democratic National Convention. He surrounded himself with his comrades from the Vietnam War, and made his national service a campaign issue. He compounded the mistake by saying he had learned “lessons” from the Vietnam War without ever saying what those lessons were. The display turned off many voters, especially veterans. The claim by the Swift Boat veterans that Kerry’s military service was a fraud found a large audience.

External events, not a failure of the campaign, led to the erosion of Kerry’s strength among women. The terrorist seizure of a Russian school and slaughter of little children alarmed many American women. By showing how the capture of a typical school in a small city could be a terrorist’s objective, mothers realized that any school, anywhere in the United States could be a target. And with this realization, many women concluded George W. Bush’s “tough” response to terrorism was the best one. According to the polls, men were not similarly affected.

Going into the first presidential debate, Kerry’s supporters were rattled. The polls showed a Bush lead. Vice President Dick Cheney essentially charged that a vote for Kerry was a vote for terrorism. Would right-wing charges move middle-of-the road Americans into the G.O.P. camp? The anxiety grew that Kerry, like Michael Dukakis in 1998, wouldn’t effectively counter the charge and fall further behind in the polls.

The debate put those fears to rest. With more than 62 million people watching, the president was unwilling to repeat the charge that a vote for John Kerry helped the enemy. Bush refused to question Kerry’s character blurting out, when asked to do so, “Whew, That’s a loaded question.” With the whole world watching, the campaign became about substantive issues, not character assassination.

Kerry did the job. He turned the tables on Bush’s “America is safer” theme. Why is the war going so badly if America is safer? Kerry rapped Bush for mistakes ranging from missing weapons of mass destruction to a makeshift international coalition to the Iraqi resistance. Kerry irked Bush by quoting his father, the 41st president, who defeated Iraq after it invaded Kuwait, but stopped short of occupying the country. Kerry said, “Now I believe there’s a better way to do this. You know the president’s father did not go into Iraq. And the reason he didn’t is there was no viable exit strategy. And he said our troops would be occupiers in a bitterly hostile land. That’s exactly where we find ourselves today. There’s a sense of American occupation.”

Kerry added that Bush compounded the problem when American troops made Iraqi oil the first priority after putting American boots on the ground.

“The only building that was guarded when the troops went into Baghdad was the oil ministry. We didn’t guard the nuclear facilities. We didn’t guard the foreign office where you might have found information about weapons of mass destruction. We didn’t guard the borders.”

Bush’s problem is incumbency. He cannot rewrite history. He has made his choices and the record is there. His refusal to admit a mistake is a liability. Kerry effectively challenged administration mismanagement, leaving the president flustered and repeating stock phrases like “It’s hard work.”

From the very first night, the poll numbers about the Kerry-Bush exchange remained stable. By an overwhelming majority, Americans thought Kerry had won the debate. Approximately 35 percent of the Republicans agreed with this assessment. Interestingly, about the same number of Republicans thought John Edwards got the better of Vice-President Cheney in their debate. These are the Bush voters who are reassessing their position. John Kerry needs these Republican votes to win.

The race has tightened. Kerry is closer to taking the lead, but he is not there yet. However, his supporters are invigorated.

It is hardly an accident that a Bush appointee, L. Paul Bremer III, the former top administrator in Iraq, embarrassed the president on Tuesday when he said there were never enough troops to preserve order in Iraq. The foreign policy establishment has been rooting for Kerry all year. When Kerry does well, more unforeseen supporters come forth.

The pressure is still on Kerry, who does not have a clear lead. Kerry must do better because he loses voters to Ralph Nader. But Kerry has made voters take a fresh look. He has appeared decisive. He talked about a plan for exiting from Iraq. The call for more troops will not be an election issue. Bush and Kerry oppose the draft, but Wednesday’s New York Times quickly reminded readers that some election promises are broken.

The pressure on Kerry will not go away. He has to repeat his strong showing in Friday’s debate. After all, the Democrats are supposed to be strongest in domestic affairs especially jobs and health. But another win this week would give the Kerry the momentum when it will do him the most good—in the final weeks of the campaign.

Kerry borrowed from the anti-war critique of the Iraq invasion, while insisting that he would set no timetable for a withdrawal. He reminded the Bush that Saddam Hussein did not attack the United States, Osama Bin Laden did. By calling the decision to invade Iraq a mistake, Kerry has left a big door open for the anti-war forces. He may not be the peace candidate, but he is the candidate the peace movement would most like to lobby.

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