Does Kerry misunderstand 1988?

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
Sept. 10 2004 1:38 AM

Looking Backward

Did Kerry learn the right lesson from Dukakis?

On to defense
On to defense

ST. LOUIS—Remember when this was John Kerry's race to lose? Now the question on everyone's minds is whether he's lost it, and if so, what it will take for him to win it back. The Kerry campaign remains stagnant—though improved from where it was a week ago—because, despite claims to the contrary, it hasn't absorbed the lesson of Michael Dukakis' failed presidential bid. Or worse, Kerry might have learned the wrong lesson from 1988.

The Kerry campaign's belated response to the false allegations leveled by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth was hailed as evidence that the specter of Dukakis looming over the campaign had been lifted, because Kerry had finally "responded." But merely rebutting a charge isn't sufficient to avoid Dukakis' fate. Standing up and saying "I am not a wife beater" doesn't fix the problem. Saying the other guy beats his husband does. The lesson of the Dukakis campaign isn't that you need to "respond" by defending yourself. The lesson is to change the subject with a counterattack.

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Look at the Bush campaign's response to Kerry's criticism of the 17 percent hike in Medicare premiums. Rather than rebut Kerry's charge or defend the administration's decision, the Bush-Cheney team released a new ad Thursday blasting Kerry for voting "five times to raise Medicare premiums." The 30-second spot ends with the kicker, "John Kerry ... he actually voted for higher Medicare premiums ... before he came out against them."

The despondence among Democrats over the superiority of the Bush-Cheney campaign team is real. The news cycle has taken a turn in Kerry's favor, but his campaign hasn't figured out how to turn the news to his advantage. During the past week, the 1,000th American died in Iraq, the administration announced the largest deficit in the nation's history, new documents about Bush's service—or lack thereof—in the National Guard emerged, and Dick Cheney made a statement so repugnant that his own staff disavowed it almost immediately. What has Kerry been able to do with these events? Maybe worse than nothing. Most notable, the 1,000th casualty led Kerry to describe the situation in Iraq as "the war on terror," and the campaign hasn't devised a good explanation for why he did that. (Though there is an emerging theory that by agreeing with Bush that Iraq is part of the war on terror, Kerry can use Iraq as evidence that Bush has mismanaged not just a sideshow in the war against al-Qaida, but the whole thing.)

The event some Democrats point to as emblematic of the Kerry campaign's refusal to play rough: Back in August, after Tom Harkin called Dick Cheney a "coward," the Iowa senator was yanked from a bus tour. The Kerry campaign denied the two events were linked, but not everyone believes them, particularly in light of the fact that the Kerry-Edwards team vetted the speeches at the Democratic Convention to ensure that no speaker criticized the president or his record too harshly.

There's a good reason not to want Sen. Harkin as the point man attacking Cheney's war record: During Harkin's 1992 presidential campaign, the Wall Street Journal called him "carefree" with the facts, particularly about his military service. "Mr. Harkin did serve in the Navy during the Vietnam era, but exactly what he did, and for how long, remain a matter of some dispute," the newspaper reported.

But if the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have taught us anything, it's that the credibility of an accuser is less important than the explosiveness of the charge. The Democrats may finally be learning that. Harkin is now back on the bus, so to speak, being trotted out to fire away at Bush and Cheney in much the same say Bob Dole and President H.W. Bush were sent out to lend credibility to the Swift boat charges. "Never defend, always attack," was Harkin's advice to Kerry in the New York Times, and the campaign seems to have taken him up on it. Of Cheney's statement that electing Sen. Kerry as president would invite a catastrophic terrorist attack, Harkin said on CNN Wednesday, "You know, I thought Dick Cheney limited his obscenities to the Senate floor." Showing mastery of the art of flinging whatever accusation you can, no matter what the topic, Harkin decided it would also be a good time to attack Cheney for war profiteering: "You know when you think of Vice President Cheney and his viciousness in that kind of remark, the fact that he still has his hand in the till of Halliburton that is making money off of Iraq, I would say that Mr. Cheney is the 2004 version of Spiro Agnew."

Kerry doesn't need to be making accusations like these himself, as he unwisely did the night after Bush's convention speech when he attacked Dick Cheney as a draft dodger. That's what surrogates are for. There was a sign Thursday that the candidate may have learned that lesson, too. At a Des Moines town hall, Kerry was talking to a 91-year-old veteran, and he told her, "That's something you never forget, your service number." From the crowd, a man called out, "George did!" Kerry waited for the laughter to subside, and then he paused and said nothing more than, "Well, moving on."

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.