Kerry Should Stay Invisible

Howard Fineman (Newsweek) — Best Advice for Kerry: Be Invisible

I̢۪ve figured out what Sen. John Kerry needs to do to win the White House this November: wrap himself in Harry Potter̢۪s Invisibility Cloak. If the Massachusetts senator can only stay out of sight for long enough, George W. Bush̢۪s presidency may sink into the sands of Iraq.

Bush’s decision to go to Iraq is one of the most fateful calls any president has made—right up there with Harry Truman’s decision to send aid to Greece and Turkey, JFK’s secret agreement to pull American missiles out of Turkey to end the Cuban missile crisis, and Ronald Reagan’s deal with Gorbachev to begin winding down the cold war. Because Bush’s decision was so important—and because it was so clearly his own to make—it’s central to the campaign. The questions of the season are and will remain: was it worth so much blood and treasure? Did it make us safer?

The American public seems to be slowly but steadily coming to the conclusion that the answer is “no.” Trend lines matter in politics, and the trend of support for the war Bush launched in 2003 has been steadily declining for months, dragging the president’s job-approval rating with it. Even if things go reasonably well in Iraq after the official handover date of June 30—a huge and probably unwarranted assumption—there are growing indications that most voters will see the original decision to go there as wrong, even if they accept the underlying, and still controversial, theory of pre-emptive war, and even if they don’t want a rapid pullout of U.S. troops.

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As he seeks to defend the war—arguing that the world is far safer with Saddam behind bars—Bush is operating in an increasingly hostile media environment. In journalism, as in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. After 9/11 there was an understandable willingness to cut him slack. That era of good feeling is gone, replaced by a media that feels burned, embarrassed and lied to—and doubly wary of the validity of good news coming from Iraq. There is some; but you won’t see it on TV.

This echoes my thoughts earlier this morning. I believe Fineman accurately captures the mood of the public and the hostility of the press. That said, Kerry will need more than an invisibility cloak. “Not the incumbent” is enough to get someone elected to the town council or the school board; it’s an insufficient basis for electing a wartime president. Kerry will need to persuade the public that he’s a man who can be trusted with protecting their security. That he was a good lieutenant in Vietnam is likely not enough in that regard.

UPDATE: Jim Hoagland disagrees:

The Bush administration’s credibility on managing Iraq has fallen so far that all Kerry has to do to score points is utter that country’s name. His criticisms are seemingly validated daily by the disasters splashed on the front pages and television screens. By cautiously shadowing Bush’s policies and condemning their implementation, Kerry deftly avoids getting in the way of the beating that Iraq is giving the president at this point.

Kerry’s untested (and largely unrealistic) “solutions” of getting France and Germany more involved and providing better training to Iraqis look credible only by comparison to Bush’s recent floundering. Kerry can parry questions about what he would do in Iraq by dwelling on what Bush did, and how it seems to be
failing.

This is really a non-strategy, in my view. It’s working right now because Kerry has the aid of the mass media, which harps on bad news in Iraq (because they involve explosions and are photographable) while largely ignoring the good. Later this summer, though, the two men will go head-to-head. I can’t imagine that Kerry’s continued saying that he’d do exactly what Bush would do except “better” and that France would somehow help out will work. Clinton might have been able to pull that off, but Kerry isn’t that compelling a salesman.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Boyd says:

    “Not the incumbent” [is] an insufficient basis for electing a wartime president.

    Is it? Is it impossible for Bush’s appeal to sink so low that Kerry, being the only viable alternative in the election, wins the election by default?

  2. GP says:

    Kerry is doing the right thing now by keeping quiet. Bush’s presidency is spiraling downward by the day. The week of Reagan gave a temporary reprieve, but negative Bush stories started up this past Monday again: Rumsfeld hid prisoners, 9/11 comission says absolutely no connection with Osama and Iraq, Cheney is under investigation for bribes while at Halliburton. There is nothing Kerry (or anyone for that matter) could say to make things worse for Bush right now. And if he were to do so now the public could focus more on Kerry trashing Bush, than on Bush trashing himself. When a ship looks like it’s about to sink, it’s best to watch from a safe distance.

    Also, many of the biggest events of the day are balls in the air that could dramatically change come the fall. So politically he doesn’t want to be on the record right now that could not be true in the fall.

    But come fall, Kerry will no doubt come out swinging. He’s a fierce campaigner who really hits his stride towards the end. By keeping quiet now (at least from the big media) he is spending his time developing his campaign skills. By all accounts his focus and stump speech delivery has vastly improved. So by the time the fall comes around he will be able to campaign in his sleep.

    Bush however is so caught up in the daily dramas of his presidency that he has no time to prepare his campaign. Kerry by staying quiet and working the grassroots now will be a better situated campaigner in the fall when the public finally tunes in to the race.

  3. McGehee says:

    Do people really think this electorate is going to be swayed that much by what Big Media chooses to report? Voters have been burned before (1992), and have, in turned, burned Big Media back (2000, 2002).

    Hell hath no fury like an American electorate that no longer trusts the “news.”

  4. McGehee says:

    Voters have been burned before (1992), and have, in turned, burned Big Media back (2000, 2002).

    That last should read, “burned Big Media back (1994, 2000, 2002).”

  5. McGehee says:

    By keeping quiet now (at least from the big media) he is spending his time developing his campaign skills.

    The man’s been in politics how long? And he’s still developing his campaign skills?

  6. SwampWoman says:

    Rumsfeld can barbecue up all the inmates at Abu Ghraib and serve ’em to the press and I still wouldn’t vote for John Kerry.