T Nation

Dissecting The Kerry Loss

Interesting article in The New Republic taking a look at the various theories spinning around the Kerry loss, and evaluates them from a left-of-center journalist perspective. I thought it would provide some good debate fodder:

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Explain Away
by Alexander Barnes Dryer

Only at TNR Online | Post date 11.15.04

Nearly two weeks have passed since the presidential election, and the conventional wisdom about why George W. Bush beat John Kerry has yet to solidify. Instead, a number of competing theories have emerged to explain the outcome. Unlike in 2000 when such theories were mainly along banal, ideological lines–the DLC accused Al Gore of having been too populist; liberals accused him of having been too centrist–this year’s recriminations have been more wide-ranging and less predictable. Below, TNR Online’s guide to which explanations of Kerry’s defeat are worth taking seriously.

Theory: It’s about geography. Population shifts have increased the number of electoral votes in the Sunbelt while decreasing them elsewhere, so Democrats need to expand their electoral base. A nominee from one of the bastions of coastal liberalism–like Boston or San Francisco–will never be able to carry the states needed for victory.

Notable Proponent: Ron Brownstein.

Notable Critic: Sean Wilentz.

Evidence: Kerry failed to win a single state outside the Northeast, the upper Midwest, and the West Coast. No northern Democrat has been elected president since 1960.

Counter-Evidence: Kerry actually won by wide margins in urban areas across the South and Midwest. Even in blue states, most counties outside the cities went to Bush. The divide in the country is between urban and rural voters–not between coastal and heartland voters.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 20 percent. John Kerry is no Bill Clinton for many reasons–not being from Arkansas was only the beginning of his problems.

Likely Solution for '08: No to Hillary Clinton. Yes to Mark Warner. The convention? Think Atlanta, not Boston.

Theory: It’s about Bob Shrum. Kerry’s ?ber-strategist is an ?ber-loser. Over the years, Shrum has worked for the presidential campaigns of Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt, Michael Dukakis, Bob Kerrey, and Al Gore. He quit Jimmy Carter’s campaign in 1976 before Carter sealed up the nomination and never became one of Bill Clinton’s confidants. His inability to pick winners extends beyond politics–Shrum once participated in a strategy session for New Coke. The only skill he does seem to possess is a talent for bureaucratic maneuvering.

Notable Proponent: Anonymous senior adviser to Kerry (note: there may be more than one).

Notable Critic: Bob Shrum.

Evidence: See every presidential election since 1976.

Counter-Evidence: At least Shrum got Kerry to the general election.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 10 percent. The problem with Kerry’s campaign was not that Shrum wielded too much influence but that no one was in control.

Likely Solution for '08: As one Kerry adviser told The New Republic’s Ryan Lizza, “There should definitely be a seven-strikes-and-you’re-out rule.”

Theory: It’s about Gavin Newsom and Margaret Marshall. If the San Francisco Mayor and the Massachusetts jurist hadn’t led the charge for gay marriage in America, conservatives wouldn’t have turned out in record numbers to support anti-gay marriage referenda and the president.

Notable Proponent: Congressman Barney Frank.

Notable Critic: Andrew Sullivan.

Evidence: High turnout usually benefits Democrats, but this year it benefited Republicans. In decisive Ohio, where job losses should have tilted the electorate in Kerry’s favor but a gay marriage referendum was on the ballot, Bush came out on top.

Counter-Evidence: Turnout was not appreciably higher in states with gay marriage referenda than in those without them. In Oregon and Michigan, voters supported Kerry while banning gay marriage.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 5 percent. “Newsom is the Nader of 2004” is a pithy line for dinner-party pundits, but the numbers just don’t indicate that the San Franciscan spoiled a Kerry victory. Still, gay marriage undoubtedly whipped up some fervor on the right.

Likely Solution for '08: The places to advance equality for gay Americans are the legislatures, not the courts. This would prevent gay-marriage opponents from playing on the public’s fear of so-called activist judges.

Theory: It’s about John Kerry. The junior senator from Massachusetts is an awkward, aloof elitist who can’t connect with ordinary Americans. He has a bizarre penchant for putting his foot in his mouth. He looks like Herman Munster and/or a Frenchman.

Notable Proponent: Our boss, Marty Peretz.

Notable Critic: Hendrik Hertzberg.

Evidence: “I have a somewhat Establishment background,” “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” “the global test,” etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Counter-Evidence: Over 55 million Americans did vote for the Democratic ticket.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 30 percent. Yes, the fact that Republicans attacked his character mercilessly and unfairly was not Kerry’s fault. But his inability to parry those attacks was perhaps his greatest weakness as a candidate.

Likely Solution for '08: Voters are looking for a normal human being to be their president. Plan accordingly. (Hint: Claiming you’re a regular guy is not the same as being a regular guy. Witness Kerry’s pitiful plea: “Have you had a beer with me yet? I like to have fun as much as the next person and go out and hack around and have a good time.”)

Theory: It’s about Iraq. Caught between the Democrats’ antiwar base and the nation’s pro-war majority, Kerry tried to achieve that famous Bill Clinton “triangulation.” But he never emerged as a sufficiently hawkish candidate. He should have outflanked Bush on the right by saying he supported the Iraq war and that he would have done a better job winning it–criticizing Bush on troop strength, funding, and planning. Instead, he muddled his position on Iraq and relied on his service in Vietnam–a credential that never persuaded many voters.

Notable Proponent: Karl Rove.

Notable Critic: Robert Kuttner.

Evidence: The GOP’s incessant invocation of Kerry’s biggest Iraq flub (“I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it”) was effective because it played into voters’ doubts about Kerry’s position on the war. One of the final polls before the election revealed Americans trusted Bush over Kerry on Iraq and terrorism by significant margins.

Counter-Evidence: Kerry actually captured a commanding majority of voters who saw Iraq as a problem distinct from the larger battle against terrorism. His position on Iraq wasn’t the problem; Bush’s fear-mongering about terrorism was.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 30 percent. From his September 20 speech at New York University through the debates, Kerry finally presented a coherent critique of Bush while still maintaining his reservations about the war. Had he started his campaign with that critique rather than closed with it, he might have won.

Likely Solution for '08: Democrats criticize Bush’s Iraq policy by reminding him that hope is not a plan. Note to Democrats: a resum? is not a plan either. The party doesn’t need someone with a military background, just someone with a coherent, tough view of America’s role in the war on terrorism.

Theory: It’s about values. Republicans have them. Democrats don’t. If the party ventures outside its natural homes–the hotbeds of secular humanism and the cesspools of Hollywood entertainment–it may learn what concerns real Americans.

Notable Proponent: Mort Kondracke.

Notable Critic: James Q. Wilson.

Evidence: Exit polls indicate that over a fifth of the electorate ranked “moral values” as the most important issue–and those voters split for Bush 80-18.

Counter-Evidence: The exit poll question was flawed. True, a plurality of voters chose “moral values” as the issue most important to them–but it’s a pretty vague term. And if you add together “Iraq” and “terrorism,” then a plurality of voters were most concerned about national security.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 5 percent. The values theory is really just a variation on the gay marriage theory, which the number crunchers have all but rejected as having played a substantial role.

Likely Solution for '08: Why being against gay marriage and abortion reflects good values but being for health care and progressive taxation does not remains a mystery to most Democrats. Here’s an idea for Democrats: Start framing your issues in moral terms and people will start seeing them as moral issues. Ask Bill Clinton for help if you need it.

Theory: It’s about Teresa. You can’t be a serious presidential contender unless you have an appropriately docile wife. Between telling a right-wing reporter to “shove it” and denigrating Laura Bush for never having held a “real job,” the ketchup heiress succeeded in alienating a sizable portion of the electorate. Also, she faked the cookie recipe she submitted to Family Circle magazine.

Notable Proponent: Hugh Hewitt.

Notable Critic: Melinda Henneberger.

Evidence: None per se, but come on–she even spoke French in her Democratic Convention speech.

Counter-Evidence: The most recent polling on Teresa showed that less than 40 percent of voters saw her unfavorably–hardly placing her in the league of other powerful women who have garnered Americans’ hatred (such as, say, Martha Stewart).

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 0 percent. Despite Bush’s inane line in his stump speech (“perhaps the best reason to put me back in there is so that Laura will be the First Lady for four more years”) there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that voters spend much time considering a candidate’s wife.

Likely Solution for '08: No solution is necessary. Nothing indicates that the First Lady is a deciding factor for many voters.

Theory: It’s about the Clintons. The Democratic super couple sent Kerry their advisers, who promptly bungled the senator’s campaign.

Notable Proponent: Arianna Huffington.

Notable Critic: None. No one seems to be taking Huffington’s theory seriously enough to criticize it.

Evidence: A variety of Clinton advisers signed on to the Kerry campaign for its final stretch; Kerry lost.

Counter-Evidence: A variety of Clinton advisers signed on to the Kerry campaign for its final stretch; Kerry lost, but he made up ground in the final weeks.

Likely Contribution to Outcome: 0 percent. The Clintonites ran the only two successful Democratic campaigns in nearly three decades. They’re as good as you can get, but even they can’t invent a charismatic personality out of nothing or teach basic political skills.

Likely Solution for '08: Sign up the Clinton advisers at the beginning, rather than when you’re already in trouble. And remember that you just need the advisers–not necessarily an actual Clinton.

Alexander Barnes Dryer is assistant to the editor.