Just under six months to actual voting and the presidential contest is all but over. John Kerry is a lock. Unless, of course, George Bush is a lead-pipe cinch. All the clichés and possible outcomes have been hauled out in recent days as political reporters struggle to admit the obvious: There's no telling what is going to happen in November 2004.
Pollster John Zogby kicked-off the fun with a provocative claim that the race was Kerry's to lose. Zogby noted that Bush was in the unfavorable position of facing three different issues—terrorism, Iraq, and the economy—any one of which could deny him a second term. In effect, Bush's one google-zillion dollar TV ad campaign could be rendered moot should events break wrong.
That's true enough, but Zogby also said Kerry has a habit of finishing his races strong, which is another way of telling despondent Democrats, "Trust me, he gets better." The problem with that view is that running as an incumbent Democratic Senator in Massachusetts is not the same thing as making the case for supreme executive power to a coalminer in Pennsylvania one week and a mill worker in the Carolinas the next.
Kerry is not a natural campaigner. He lost a race for Congress in 1972 in a district carried by George McGovern, not an easy thing for a liberal, anti-war activist/war hero to do. Kerry's biggest career hurdle was gaining some kind of office. He has been playing with house money since his 1982 lieutenaut governor win, and then he married Teresa.
But Zogby's polls do show an unmistakable softening for Bush in the wake of the prison abuse scandal from Iraq, thrusting Kerry into the nominal lead. You'd think that would be cause for happiness among would-be Kerry fans, but optimism, let alone joy, is hard to find. About all the positive move has done is cool the dump-Kerry talk that was rampant in the wake of Medalgate.
Kerry's stubborn inability to "connect" with voters has some already comparing him to Mike Dukakis, the black hole of political charisma who actually made Dubya's dad seem energetic and spry. This view has Kerry running an anti-campaign that is much too reluctant to close in and do battle with Bush before Bush launches his lethal barrage of negative TV ads.
Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Steve Berg recalls that at a similar point in the 1988 campaign Dukakis had very low negatives among voters nationwide and looked to be a serious threat to Bush I, or Reagan III as Poppy was then marketed to conservatives. But then Lee Atwater helped America to a second look at the Massachusetts Miracle and that all changed.
For an even more dire opinion of Kerry's campaign, look no further than former Kerry adman Dan Payne, who set out to answer the left's question of the day, week, and month: How come John Kerry isn't clobbering this guy? Here's Payne's take:
"Kerry is tough sell. He's long-winded and dense, looks sad, generates little excitement, and is allergic to sound bites. Delivers measured criticism while vice president flatly questions Kerry's ability to lead America at time of war."
And this is from a guy who knows him, although Payne adds that Bush's Nixonian "dirty tricks" are also at work.
So that's it. Kerry is done despite the favorable terrain for a hard run at Bush. Except that those who put stock in the mysterious swing states see great Bush weakness there. The New York Times waded into the fabled Midwest, to Webster Groves in the state of Missouri, to find out that Sharyl Groves, a Republican, does not yet know for whom she is going to vote. This is a sure sign of impending doom for Bush. Except that the way Groves actually frames things Kerry comes off the worse for it:
"I'm not quite mad enough to say I wouldn't vote for Bush. But Kerry just hasn't made enough of an impression for me to say he's the one. I don't know where he stands on issues. He hasn't made a negative impression, he's made no impression at all."
See? Typical swing-state inscrutability. But that does not stop The Christian Science Monitor from predicting that all the swing states might swing in the same direction in November, making for a big win for…somebody. This analysis purposely unlearns the lessons of 2000, which demonstrated that even a few counties—the Florida panhandle—with unique issues (timezone) can help tilt a dead-heat national election.
Then USA Today helpfully weighs in with the observation that for Bush to lose voters must first decide they do not want to vote for Bush. This is political analysis as done by the same folks who write the instructions on hammer handles—clear, concise, and damn useless for most of us. Wear eye protection, though.
For a more nuanced view we must turn to Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne, who advises Kerry—I think, the advice being so nuanced and all—to come out for nationalized health care before Kerry falls into "Bush's trap" of trying to find ways to close the yawning budget deficit.
"Kerry should not be as fearful as Democrats usually are of telling a simple truth: that government is sometimes the only instrument available to solve problems that markets cannot," Dionne writes.
Thanks E.J., we'll get back to you on that. Could you work up a list of the problems you have in mind, besides peace I mean? Great.
Meanwhile, Kerry is only just now testing out a more critical message on Iraq, one that seems to focus more on the values of the Bush administration than any actual policy differences that might exist between the two campaigns. That and gasoline is way too expensive, and that is Bush's fault too.
But Bush is flailing beyond the obvious Iraq troubles. The White House appears utterly flummoxed that the sight of gays marrying in Kerry's stomping ground has yet to set the peasants to marching with their pitchforks. Gay marriage was to be both the outsider-liberal millstone that Bush saddled Kerry with and the talisman that helped to activate social conservatives for the stretch run. However, as of this moment, this issue looks more like what gun control turned out to be for liberals in recent elections—important to a core of activists but not a voting issue for most voters.
So if both campaigns are blowing up already, who is going to win? That's easy. Look for the scary Yalie to win going away. Unless it's real close.