Desperate Measures

Never mind the manager. Kerry’s campaign needs a new candidate.


On Monday, in a bid to put some life into his fast-expiring presidential campaign two months before the New Hampshire primary, John Kerry booted his campaign manager. The move was no doubt intended to project an image of decisive leadership, but, as so often with Kerry, it conveyed something like the opposite.

It didn’t have to be this way. Kerry started out as the front-runner. Facing a popular president who had just won a war, Democrats pointed to Kerry, who is a decorated Vietnam vet, as the only candidate (pre-Wes Clark) with the credentials to stand up to Bush.

But that was before the rise of Howard Dean, who is creaming Kerry in polls, and who looks likely to clobber him in New Hampshire in January. A Nov. 6 poll of New Hampshire voters put Dean at 38 percent, compared with 24 percent for Kerry and low single digits for the rump candidates. Recent poll numbers from Zogby show that, nationally, Dean now leads the pack with 15 percent of the Democratic primary vote, while Clark has 10 percent, with Kerry trailing both Gephardt and Lieberman.

Back in May, Time suggested that the only Dem candidate who wouldn‘t look foolish replicating that Bush’s May 1 aircraft carrier stunt was Kerry. (Which in hindsight, seems ludicrously generous.) A Vietnam War vet who opposed the war once back on U.S. soil, Kerry appeared to combine solid military credentials with experience in public office. Ironically, it might just be the war issue that sinks his campaign. Kerry voted to support Bush’s resolution to go to war with Iraq, even though right before the vote went to the Senate, he condemned the U.S. for taking unilateral action. That’s starting to look like a mistake. Joan Vennochi writes for the Boston Globe:

“He was the Vietnam veteran who returned home to challenge the power structure that sent young men to die in a faraway jungle. How could he ever forget that lesson? He seemed to a year ago when he trusted the very same power structure and cast a vote authorizing war with Iraq. Now young men and women are dying in a faraway desert, betrayed by the same bureaucracy that Kerry scorned for betraying him and the American people in Vietnam. Worse for Kerry is the nagging suspicion that he did not forget the lessons of Vietnam but chose to ignore them because he didn’t want to look too antiwar when war was popular.”

At the time of the vote, Democratic strategists were most likely advising candidates to vote for the war. Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution writes, “Kerry, whose most transparent flaw has always been calculated ambition, probably believed that his presidential aspirations would be better served by a “yes” vote on the resolution.” To make matters worse, Kerry voted against giving Iraq $87 billion in reconstruction aid—appearing to support war, but being unwilling to follow through with it.

All politicians are ambitious, of course, but there are those, like Bill Clinton, who can offset the steely calculation with a personal warmth, and those, like Kerry, and Al Gore, who come across as chilly and aloof. The Christian Science Monitor notes that what it calls Kerry’s “inhuman quality” keeps voters at a distance:

“It’s a question that has dogged Kerry, a product of exclusive schools and a relatively blue-blooded lineage (his mother was a Forbes), throughout his political career. In many ways, though, it has less to do with his wealth and upbringing than with his somewhat mannered style – and his status as a four-term senator at a time when many Americans view Washington politicians as disingenuous or out of touch.”

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From the start, Kerry’s campaign has been marred by a lack of clarity on basic political issues. A recent example: Kerry was all over Dean for ditching matching federal funds, and will now probably do the same.

These problems of outward image have been mirrored, or perhaps caused, by in-fighting in his own camp. Classic Kerry campaign anecdote: opposing Kerry factions, one based in Massachusetts, the other in Washington, both prepared candidacy announcement speeches for Kerry, one more risky than the other. Kerry chose to deliver the more benign version, which fell flat and was ditched before his next speaking engagement. Soon after, his communications director, Chris Lehane, quit.

Voters might legitimately wonder how Kerry, if he has so much trouble running a campaign, would run an administration. Judging from the record so far, he’s unlikely to get the opportunity to settle that question.

Replacing Kerry’s campaign manager of five years, Jim Jordan, is Massachusetts-based Democratic activist Mary Beth Cahill, a top aide to Sen. Edward Kennedy. She has her work cut out for her to turn this campaign around in two months.

Signs of a new tack for the campaign are already emerging.
Josh Benson of Salon writes:

“The newer, trimmer version of the Kerry appeal has a more populist theme: combating “special interests,” repealing the high end of the Bush tax cut, and delivering affordable healthcare and lower tuition to the middle class. He is less modulated — gone is the 20-minute explanation of his votes on Iraq. And his criticisms are more direct. But the most noteworthy change is the all-out attack on Dean, from his positions on taxes, healthcare and guns to, yes, his “values.”

But most critics suggest that Kerry’s attempts to shake up his campaign by changing managers won’t solve anything. Thomas Oliphant of the Boston Globe that the Kerry campaign’s “real problem” is … Kerry:

“Two points about the shakeup are especially important. The Kerry candidacy is not in mortal peril because of the previous campaign manager, Jim Jordan — a skilled and experienced Democratic politician. Nor will it be saved because there is a new campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, another true professional…It is a cliche because it is true: The makeup of a presidential campaign is important to politicians and journalists; its message content is what either moves or doesn’t move voters. When something is wrong, the campaign staff can be a metaphor, but the real problem is always the candidate.”

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