How Kerry can win the debate on terror and Iraq.

Politics and policy.
Sept. 24 2004 6:19 PM

Democratic Leadership Counsel

How Kerry can win the debate on terror and Iraq.

Can we talk?
Can we talk?

To: John Kerry From: Another kibbitzing pundit Re: Your speech today on Iraq and the war on terror

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Great speech this morning in Philadelphia. You're on a roll. Here are 10 things you're doing right or could do better.

1. Reframe the "consistency" issue. Bush says you often change your mind. You've denied this. According to yesterday's Washington Post, Democrats are grumbling that Bush flip-flops a lot. They're wrong. The Post story showed how peripheral Bush's shifts are. On the big issues—tax cuts and Iraq—he's been even steadier than Reagan. Stop fighting his consistency shtick, and go with it. The economy sucks. Iraq is a mess. Polls show that people understand these things and that they want change. You're the challenger, the candidate of change.

You've already picked up the Clinton '92 theme, "Change versus more of the same." In the first debate, when Bush accuses you of changing your mind, admit it. Say that your goals and values are firm but that when the president's policies are going in the wrong direction—away from those goals and values—you're not afraid to change course. This is what Bush can't do, and everyone knows it. You took a step in the right direction with today's observation that "the president still says he wouldn't do anything different. I would." You need to come back to this theme more, uh, consistently.

2. Define Bush's problem with the truth. The other day, in an ad lib, you called him a liar. Don't do that again. In a contest of sincerity, more people trust him than trust you. What they don't trust is the correspondence between Bush's sincere beliefs and reality. The descriptions you used in this speech—"mistakes," "misjudgment," and "miscalculation"—are exactly right. And your theme for unifying that critique—that he's "living in a fantasy world of spin"—is almost perfect. I don't like the word "spin," which implies that Bush knows better than what he's saying. He doesn't know better, even when he should, and that's the problem. "Fantasy world" is shorter and better.

You accused Bush of "confusion" twice today. You were chiding him for retracting his comment that the war on terror couldn't be won and for contradicting the pessimism of his defense secretary. Drop it. In a contest of confusion, you'll lose, because people think of confusion as a conflict between the speaker and himself, and that's you all over. Bush's confusion isn't between him and himself. It's between him and the facts. Better to express this as you did in your next sentence: "We need national leaders who will face reality."

3. Get muscular. Two of your opponents in the presidential primaries, Howard Dean and Bob Graham, opposed the resolution authorizing force in Iraq. Dean sounded like he wanted foreign threats to go away so he could focus on domestic policy. Graham sounded like he wanted to personally beat the living daylights out of every member of al-Qaida, Hamas, and Hezbollah. You need to sound more like Graham. Your comparisons today between the war on terror and the Cold War were exactly on point. My eyes nearly popped out when I saw your statement that we need to pursue diplomacy with North Korea so that we'll "have the support of our allies for action if diplomacy fails." Are you talking about war? I doubt it, but it's a relief to hawks like me to hear you talk tough.

4. Elevate the financial side of the war on terror. In previous elections, Democrats answered the GOP's military nationalism with economic nationalism. Democrats couldn't look tougher on Chinese missiles, so they got tougher on Chinese exports. They could handle terrorism similarly. Americans will never believe Bush is soft on terrorists. But they might believe he's soft on companies and regimes that ignore terrorist money channels while doing him economic favors. In today's speech, you pointed out, "Since 9/11, there have been no public prosecutions in Saudi Arabia … of terrorist financiers." You recalled your investigation of "an international bank that was one of the early financiers of terrorism." You also argued that Bush "allowed the chemical industry to derail commonsense measures for chemical plant security." Let's hear more about this. Democrats are supposed to be the watchdogs of big business. They should apply that mandate and image more aggressively to terrorism and homeland security.

P.S. Your description of the botched Tora Bora stakeout as "outsourcing" and "subcontracting" to warlords fits this message nicely. It reminds voters of contexts in which Democrats are the party of American competence and nationalism.

5. Frame your multilateralism as optimism. You made a good case this morning that multilateralism is what the terrorists are trying to destroy. As you noted, "They are making a special effort to set off bombs in Turkey, Morocco and Indonesia." But I'm one of many Americans who smell deference and inaction when you talk about consulting our allies. You need to make multilateralism sound less like us doing what our allies want—and more like them doing what we want. When Bush and Cheney accuse you of seeking a "permission slip" from France or the United Nations, they're implying that our allies won't go along with what we need. You should challenge this assumption. The best passage in your speech today was, "They say the Europeans won't help us, no matter what. … Ordinary people around the world will resent us, no matter what. But I have news for President Bush: Just because you can't do something doesn't mean it can't be done."

6. Quantify the Iraq "diversion." You're right to fault Bush for spending in Iraq resources needed to fight more direct threats to us. But this is a very hot charge. People don't want to believe it, and it will backfire if it looks rhetorical. Every sentence you utter on this point should consist of quantifiable facts. Good examples from today's speech: 1) "The Bush administration is spending more in Iraq in four days than they've spent protecting our ports for all of the last three years." 2) "The CIA unit charged with finding Bin Laden has fewer experienced case officers today than it had before 9/11." 3) "More [Soviet nuclear] materials were secured in the two years before 9/11 than in the two years after." 4) "There were more terrorist attacks in the world last year than the year before." 5) "We hear the secretary of defense himself wondering whether the radicals are recruiting, training, and deploying more terrorists than we're capturing or killing."

7. Talk about Afghanistan. This is one of the best things you did today. Bush says we have to stay the course in Iraq because our enemies there are terrorists and we have to finish the job. You pointed out that terrorists in uncontrolled areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan pose a clearer threat to us and that we haven't finished that job. You called Afghanistan "still the front line in the war on terror." This assertion is true, enormously important, and politically powerful. Every time Bush makes a point about Iraq, you should apply that point to Afghanistan. When he says Saddam harbored terrorists, remind him that Afghanistan is still harboring terrorists, many of whom are part of the group that attacked us on 9/11. When he says we have to finish the job, remind him that Iraq is the reason he failed to finish the job (in Afghanistan) that mattered most to our security.

8. Turn the Republicans' scare tactic against them. Cheney, Hastert, and other Republicans are suggesting there will be more terrorist attacks if you're president. Hold them to that standard: Bush is president, and terror attacks are increasing. You noted that attacks are up, but you seem reluctant to press the point. Antiterrorism policy should be accountable and measurable just like economic policy. This is the measurement.

9. Come up with a good Saddam line. Bush says you think we'd be safer with Saddam in power than in jail. Your reply today—"George Bush made Saddam Hussein the priority; I would have made Osama Bin Laden the priority"—is accurate but lame. You'll need a zippier version in next week's debate. Something like, "If I were president, Osama Bin Laden would be in jail."

10. Tone down the suck-up to women. These lines in your opening remarks reeked of poll-driven calculation: "This is not just a political or military struggle. It goes to the very heart of what we value most: our families. It strikes at the bond between a mother and child. … No American mother should have to lie awake at night worrying whether her children will be safe." Please, find a subtler pick-up line.

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