With bad news coming from all sources -- security nightmares in Iraq, dissenters in the conservative ranks, and a half-dozen scandals under investigation -- George W. Bush seems to be tumbling toward defeat with hardly a push from challenger John Kerry. But is this the best way for Kerry to prepare for November? Prospect writing fellow Matthew Yglesias and Paul Waldman, editor in chief of The Gadflyer, discuss the pros and cons of a low profile.
It's hard to argue with success, and John Kerry's campaign strategy -- playing duck and cover while a tidal wave of bad news hits the Bush administration -- has paid dividends so far. But he can't stay close to the ground much longer. The tactic of trying to stay out of the headlines leaves his presidential hopes dangerously exposed to the vicissitudes of current events. On the domestic front, the string of bad news on the job market that was once thought to provide the Democrats' best hope has evaporated, and most economists believe that the fundamentals point toward sustained economic growth through the election. Kerry, meanwhile, has seen his fortunes boosted by the spike in gasoline prices, but there is no guarantee that this trend will continue to November.
Much the same can be said of foreign policy. The recent news out of Iraq has, obviously, not reflected well on the administration. Nevertheless, last week's raid on Ahmad Chalabi's offices shows that Bush is not unwilling to pull an abrupt about-face when he feels like it. We've seen hints that the administration is at least contemplating a decision to pull forces out of Iraq at the request of its handpicked, soon-to-be-unveiled "sovereign" government. The strategy here would be to replicate on a larger scale what we've recently seen in Fallujah: declare victory and surrender, while hoping that the public cares more about the reduced casualty count than the implicit admission of strategic failure. Kerry can't count on the idea that the administration will continue to mishandle things while hoping that body bags do his job for him. He needs to frame the debate around the broader strategic failure we're witnessing, and he needs to start doing it before major news organizations dismantle their Baghdad bureaus.
Perhaps most important, however, is the prospect that the United States will, like Spain, suffer a terrorist attack sometime before the election. Just based on the revelations of insiders like Rand Beers and Richard Clarke, the administration should be very vulnerable on this count. Still, polling data shows this to consistently be Bush's strongest issue. In the wake of an attack, its salience would obviously jump dramatically, and the instinct to rally around the commander in chief could be a boon to the Bush campaign. What's more, once an attack occurs, taking aim at the administration's counterterrorism record would likely backfire. If Kerry's smart, he'll work harder to make this case now, laying the groundwork that the president needs to be held accountable when the administration's policies lead to disaster.
There is something rather bizarre about suggesting that a presidential candidate keep a low profile, but Kerry isn't going to do himself much good by injecting himself into the stories currently dominating the news. There are two reasons. First, speaking about issue stories that are nothing but trouble for President Bush will turn them into campaign stories that end up as a wash. Second, Kerry's own positions don't do much to help him.
Right now the war in Iraq is dominating the headlines, with a couple of other issues like the price of gasoline filling out the news hole. These stories are about substance: what happened at Abu Ghraib, where the responsibility lies, what the prospects are for success in Iraq, etc. Let's say Kerry comes out tomorrow and offers a blistering critique of the administration's failures. The story then changes, at least for a day or two, into a campaign story. Suddenly the substance is banished, as the news pages are filled with the mindless "he said, he said" of campaign reporting -- not to mention a healthy dose of quotes from the likes of Ken Mehlman and Ed Gillespie about how whatever Kerry had to say is the very definition of dastardly flip-floppery.
And what, exactly, will Kerry have to say? What he has had to offer on Iraq is, at this point, not much different from what the Bush administration is bungling its way toward: more United Nations involvement as a transition to eventual Iraqi sovereignty. He may be right when it comes to the details, but at least in the broadest contours he doesn't offer voters a particularly clear distinction.
Let's take another issue: the price of gasoline. Whether there's much that the president can do to bring prices down in the short term is debatable, but when Kerry spoke up about it, what did he have to offer? A proposal to temporarily stop filling the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. The value of this proposal is debatable, but politically speaking, it hasn't exactly rallied huge numbers of voters to Kerry's cause. (Al Gore had the same idea back in 2000; fat lot of good it did him.)
On the economy, Bush hasn't gotten the boost from recent job gains for a few reasons. He's still in the hole when it comes to job creation, so his boasts about a couple of good months ring hollow. And the jobs that are being created aren't likely to be the high-wage, solid-benefit kind. So, much like his father in 1992, Bush finds himself telling people that despite what they see in their own lives and communities, things are actually going great. But you can't feed your kids with last quarter's gross domestic product numbers.
Let's face it: If Bush gets booted from office in November, it won't be because a wave of frenzied Kerry-mania swept the country. It'll be because voters wanted to get rid of Bush and found Kerry to be a not too frightening alternative. At the moment, Kerry's best strategy is to keep running his warm and fuzzy bio ads, to travel to battleground states to talk about domestic issues like health care (thereby generating positive local news coverage), and to stay off the front pages.
Trying to offer running commentary on the Bush Iraq policy would, indeed, be a mistake, and suggestions that Kerry is obligated to do so are a trap. The current strategy of laying low, however, is not the best alternative. Think back to Afghanistan. It's a striking fact that that war, utterly uncontroversial at its inception, has actually failed to achieve almost any of the goals that the president laid out in the fall of 2001. Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar are still at large; the Taliban continues to hold sway over a significant portion of the country; and, despite the president's effusive praise for Afghanistan's new constitution, the country is neither prosperous, stable, nor democratic (and isn't likely to become any of the above in the near future).
How is it, then, that Bush managed to come out of the conflict more popular than ever? Simple: by redefining his failure as a success. The Taliban no longer control Kabul, and American casualties have been light, hence Bush "won" the war. More recently, Bush sent the Marines into Fallujah in order to put the United States in control of the city and to apprehend the perpetrators of the gruesome murder of four contractors. The fighting proved tougher than expected, many Marines were killed, and Bush's political stock was seriously threatened. Today the Marines are gone, the United States does not control the city, and the killers are still at large. Nevertheless, there are no more casualties coming out of Fallujah, so the mission has been pronounced a success.
Given the circumstances prevailing at the time, there was probably nothing the Democrats could have done to prevent the Afghanistan public-relations gambit from working. Bush's sharply diminished credibility on national security, however, gives Kerry the opportunity to redefine the Iraq debate to prevent Bush from weaseling out of the disaster he's made. As long as waiting for bad news is Kerry's strategy, Bush can win simply by taking any means necessary to narrow the stream of casualties to a trickle between now and November. Kerry needs to make the point, however, that not only has the Iraq campaign incurred ongoing costs -- for this may change over the next few months -- but it has also not achieved its goals. The security threat posed by Saddam Hussein has proven ephemeral. No wave of democratization has swept the Middle East (or even Iraq); were one to come, it would almost certainly be hostile to U.S. interests. This is a broad failure that will continue to exist even if the body bags stop coming home.
More positively, the Kerry campaign and its advisers have lots of interesting and worthwhile ideas on the security front, from military reform to revitalizing America's alliances. Unfortunately, we don't seem to hear much about these proposals. Bush's political vulnerability on Iraq may prove transient, but it could be an opportunity to permanently transform the dynamics of the security debate, as Republican weakness finally gives Democrats a chance to have their ideas taken seriously.
How people feel about John Kerry will never be the defining issue of this race, but it is an issue nonetheless. Staying off the front pages and sticking to banalities about his military service merely reinforces the proposition that John Kerry has nothing to offer the country aside from not being George W. Bush. Bad news for Bush should be an opportunity to change all that, not an excuse for embracing a subpar campaign merely because it might work.
Matt raises a good point with the Afghanistan analogy. To Kerry's credit, he did criticize the administration for letting Osama bin Laden escape at Tora Bora, at a time when few would risk offering any discouraging words. And if history is any guide, Bush will find a way to declare victory in Iraq, whether on June 30 or some time thereafter, regardless of the situation on the ground. The question for Kerry is how he'll respond.
Matt is also right that a running commentary on the Bush administration's daily failures in Iraq does Kerry little good, and that's why Kerry needs to carefully choose when and where to make his case. The challenge for Kerry isn't whether he can win the day-to-day skirmishes with which we in the chattering class tend to get consumed; it's whether he can offer a critique of the Bush administration that is both coherent and easily understood.
As my Gadflyer colleague Tom Schaller observed back when Howard Dean looked like the inevitable Democratic nominee, Kerry's evolution on Iraq mirrors the one most Americans went through: initial support for the war, perhaps grudging, that was shaken by assorted misgivings and finally ended up, if not in outright opposition, then in the pained conclusion that no matter what we do, the cost has been too high. So while the Bushies may charge "Flip-flopper!" no matter what Kerry says, he can reach back to his own comments before the war started -- when he was already raising important questions about cooperation from allies and the war's aftermath -- to find a critique that will make more sense to Americans than just staying the course.
In truth, the flip-flopper charge is only 45 degrees off the mark. Kerry's problem isn't that he changes his mind; it's that he's extremely cautious when it comes to positioning himself on controversial issues. (Well, that's one problem, anyway.) The result of that caution is often statements carefully crafted to leave himself in a reasonable position no matter what the outcome of events. The contrast with Bush, who is going to do what he wants no matter what the American people think or how disastrous the consequences might be, couldn't be more striking. Despite the dishonesty with which his policies are sold, Bush's has in many ways been a fearless presidency. It's both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.
So Kerry's challenge -- on Iraq in particular, but the same applies to almost any issue -- is to articulate an alternative that offers people some positive reason to vote for him, and that he can stick with from here to November. This doesn't mean changing his mind or going back on anything he's said previously; it just means reducing it to something simple. (Though it seems to run against his nature, Kerry would do well to heed what my high-school English teacher used to remind us: There's a big difference between simple and simplistic.)
With Bush flailing about, this might be a good time to spend a few days figuring out what that alternative will be -- and how to communicate it.
Kerry's, um, evolving position on the Iraq War more or less mirrors my own, so I won't criticize him on that score. We're in agreement, however, that he suffers from a certain lack of boldness. The president's speech Monday night was notable for his continued embrace of dishonesty as a public-relations tool, but he did a good job of painting a broader picture of the vision into which, as he sees it, his Iraq policy fits. This, I think, is where Kerry needs to strike, moving beyond policy nuances and giving us a broader vision of how America should operate in the world.
Ivo H. Daalder and James M. Lindsay from the Brookings Institution, authors of a well-regarded critique of the Bush national-security agenda, recently proposed the creation of a broad-based alliance of democracies that would provide an alternative source of legitimacy to the often dysfunctional United Nations. The plan has some practical difficulties, to be sure (would anyone join?), but it's the sort of big-picture thinking that highlights the distinction between, as Zbigniew Brzezinski has aptly characterized it, wise global leadership and Bushian dreams of global domination.
Another example: The troubled situation in Iraq, taken together with lingering problems in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, demonstrates that, beyond Bush's failed policy-making, the United States is simply not very good at postwar stabilization missions. Our military contains the wrong mix of forces -- long on armor and nuclear submarines to combat a nonexistent Soviet Union and short on active-duty military police and civil-affairs units to handle the aftermath of the sort of small-scale conflicts in which we might realistically engage. A proposal to close this capabilities gap, encourage our allies to do the same, and work to integrate civilian agencies and international organizations with the Department of Defense in a coherent way would be welcome.
These are the sort of ideas that, I think, could help Kerry appeal to the large number of disillusioned former hawks by making it clear that complaints about unilateralism and inadequate resources are not just weak-kneed excuses for inaction but legitimate problems that a Democratic administration would work to overcome. They are not, moreover, incredibly novel ideas: They come from some of the same people who are advising Kerry and the rest of the party.
The campaign's basic dilemma is that while large majorities now agree that America is on the wrong track, no consensus has emerged as to which way the right track lies. The result, thus far, has been a kind of paralysis as Kerry waits for a majority to start heading in some direction or another. But public opinion -- especially on security issues -- doesn't work like that. There was no spontaneous clamor for a unilateral invasion of Iraq as a response to September 11. Rather, Bush took the public's clear understanding that dramatic times call for dramatic actions as an opportunity to shape public opinion and build support for his policies. If Kerry leads, there's no guarantee that the American people will follow. But a person has no business running for president unless he has some confidence in his ability to exercise this sort of leadership.
We can be sure that with the Democratic foreign-policy establishment having spent the last three years in extended contemplation of America's place in the world, and with Kerry himself a relatively deep and -- dare I say it -- nuanced thinker (for a politician, anyway), his actual foreign policy, should he be elected, will be rather complex.
But because we're offering him unsolicited (and no doubt unheeded) advice, we should remember that while there certainly is a relationship between campaigning and governing, they aren't the same thing. Even the most honest candidate has to distill all the things he will or might do in office into something that people who are interested and invested in the campaign at varying levels can understand. This isn't only about being a successful candidate; it's also about offering the voters something they can use to make their decisions.
George W. Bush has done this very successfully. The ideology he represents is multifaceted, in that it has implications for dozens if not hundreds of issues. But his 2000 campaign distilled it into an easy-to-understand idea: "compassionate conservatism." It gave people a guide to what he believed, what he would do, and what he wouldn't do.
Of course, it was constructed for the purpose of deception. In reality, there is no substance to compassionate conservatism; its purpose is to put a false but moderate veneer on Bush's actual ideology. (If you don't believe me, check out the sea of black faces in Bush's "Compassion Photo Album.") To quote Morty Seinfeld: "Cheap fabric and dim lighting. That's how you move merchandise."
But the example is still an instructive one. Kerry might want to think about his foreign-policy doctrine as existing on three levels: the lengthy details now being hashed out by the advisers, like Richard Holbrooke and Rand Beers, who will make up his foreign-policy team; the two or three simple ideas to which those details can be reduced; and the snappy, easy-to-remember name for the doctrine that can be repeated over and over.
Kerry has shown that he's able to think a few steps down the road while focusing on the task at hand. At a time in the primaries when most commentators were writing his obituary, he decided, with an eye toward the general election (and to no small measure of criticism), to forgo public financing and therefore not be bound by spending limits. Without that move, he wouldn't have a chance of competing with Bush right now. So Kerry needs to simultaneously answer two questions: What does he really want the Kerry doctrine to be in the long term, and what's the best way in the short term to convince the American people that it's the right way to go?
As Mario Cuomo said, "We campaign in poetry, but we govern in prose." But if you can't master the poetry, you'll never get to the prose. To return to the question with which we began this exchange, it has certainly seemed in the last few weeks that a low profile has helped Kerry, but that period is coming to an end. We know that Kerry doesn't really hit his stride until late in the game, anyway. What's important is what happens when he comes out of the bullpen.
Matthew Yglesias is a Prospect writing fellow. Paul Waldman is the editor in chief of The Gadflyer. His latest book is Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You.