The Candidate Vanishes

Bill Clinton and Michael Moore are hogging the spotlight. Does this help Kerry or remind voters of his invisibility?

| Wed Jun. 30, 2004 2:00 AM EDT

It's the summer before a presidential election. We are at war, jobs are scarce, and our nation's reputation around the world is in question. In this climate, a bit of campaign jostling and pre-election brouhaha is only to be expected. Yet, lately, it seems like the loudest partisan battles don’t even star both of the candidates. While Bush is busy riding the frayed coattails of the war on terror, John Kerry has stepped back while his fellow liberals hog the spotlight. We’re talking, of course, about former president Bill Clinton, who’s been hawking his tell-some memoir everywhere from 60 Minutes to Oprah to Larry King Live, and Michael Moore, who’s enjoying the triumphant release of Fahrenheit 9/11, his docu-satire dedicated to driving Bush out of the Oval Office.

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While Clinton and Moore take their victory laps, Kerry has effectively disappeared. A Lexis search of last week’s coverage in three national papers, the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post, tells the story: There were 81 articles featuring Clinton (26 in the NYT, 26 in the LAT, and 29 in the Post) and 44 about Moore (19, 12, 13). Kerry managed a mere 25 (19, 4, 1). (Admittedly, Lexis is not the world’s most accurate political barometer, but it’s good for such quick readings.)

Bill Clinton's been on the ground, going from city to city, shaking the hands of common folk, not asking for votes per se, but cashing in on his intrigue with a public nostalgic for the charismatic Democrat. The New York Times quoted an 18-year old customer at a book signing in New York who plans to work for the Kerry campaign. He's worried about the candidate measuring up to Clinton's enduring, albeit controversial, legacy. ''You can never get tired of Bill Clinton. And unfortunately, that's one of John Kerry's problems.''

Clinton has pledged to stump for Kerry, although his resurrection provides ammunition to critics who will slam his handling of terror threats during his eight years in office. And anti-war voters will be frustrated with Clinton's moderate take on Iraq, which seems calculated to protect his wife’s career. Yesterday’s International Herald Tribune reports that, as Clinton reenters the spotlight, "he turns out to be a guy who insists on reminding people that two-thirds of the Democratic Party in Congress voted George W. Bush the specific powers he needed to make war in Iraq. Then, piling it on, he goes and [tells Germany’s Der Speigel magazine] that France and Germany wrongly made light of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein." This may not play well abroad:

In fact, for Europeans irritated these days by anything that sounds like an American's support for a non-capitulationist view of the United States' self-interests, Clinton's approach may have come as disappointingly as John Kerry's when he pounced on Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's Spain for pulling its forces out of Iraq, and urged the Europeans to share the mission's risks and burdens. The issue here is not Bush, whose admirers in Europe are squad-sized rather than legion. It is rather that Clinton's bottom line on America's world role -- like that, as well, of virtually all the mainstream foreign policy players in Washington -- may not jibe with the America that ... many ... say they want to love.

Likewise, Clinton’s centrist tendencies could play into Bush’s hands domestically. Though Clinton may cause a swell of Democratic wistfulness, he could end up as a charismatic reminder of Kerry’s inability to define himself.

For all of his current popularity, Michael Moore may have a similar effect on Kerry. Fahrenheit 9/11 not only assaults the Bush administration for its handling of the war on terror, it also zeros in on moments of Democratic muteness in the face of the Bush juggernaut. The goal of Moore's film is unequivocal: to get Bush out of the White House. A Republican group, Citizens United, last week charged that the film is "pure political propaganda," and its advertising is in violation of election laws. Citizens United filed a complaint with the Federal Elections Commission last Thursday alleging that the film's ads, which ridicule the president and his cronies, cannot be aired as the Republican National Convention nears. These 30-second spots may be all that some viewers see of Fahrenheit 9/11, and Moore knows it. So they are packed with clips of Bush acting like a less-than-presidential cowboy.

George W. Bush may be the antagonist in Fahrenheit 9/11, but Kerry is certainly not cast in the role of savior. The film opens with the 2000 election and the vote-counting debacle in Florida. In a gripping scene, Moore shows Congressmembers, mostly African American representatives from districts where hundreds of voters were disenfranchised, passionately objecting to Bush v. Gore on the House floor. Their objections were merely dressing on a done deal, gaveled home by the president of Congress, none other than Al Gore. Without the support of a senator, they were not allowed to air their objections. So, one by one, they stand before the House, speak for a few moments before being sent back to their seats. All because not a single Senator would lend his or her name to their grievances. Some viewers will wonder, where was Kerry?

Moore's film may be seen as not just a chronicle of Bush's misdeeds, but a reminder of Kerry's lack of leadership in the Senate during the past four years. As Michael Olesker, a columnist for the Baltimore Sunwrote after seeing the film, "There's enough there that's so explicitly undeniable about the Bush White House that it makes you want to scream and much that implicitly damns the Democrats because you wonder where they were hiding while the country was being shoved into this war in Iraq." And this doesn’t help Kerry prove himself as an alternative:

Kerry voted to go to war. Maybe he can make the case that, like the rest of us, he was misinformed by false intelligence claims. But where does his war policy differ from Bush's? Kerry says he would have gotten wider international support before going into Iraq. But we're there now, and the body count rises, and Kerry still hasn't made clear how he would settle this any differently than Bush.

Early in the primary season the back-row strategy worked for Kerry. He played the quiet stalwart to Dean's howling headliner when he took the Iowa Caucus, then he promptly took the Iowa caucus and the lead for good. Fewer headlines, and less controversy, worked for him then. And Bush has accommodated this strategy with his own series of missteps. Yet, at this point voters want to hear from the man himself. The latest poll numbers show President Bush's job approval rating at its nadir, 42 percent, the lowest level since he became president. The NYT/CBS poll, conducted last week, found that more voters have their minds made up, in both directions, when it comes to Bush, with Kerry more of a wild card. Close to 40 percent of voters have a favorable opinion of President Bush, with only 30 percent feeling the same way about Kerry. A quarter of those polled don’t know what to think of Kerry (versus 15 percent who are undecided for Bush).

Not that Clinton and Moore’s temporary theft of Kerry’s (quiet) thunder is unique. It is worth mentioning that the president also was upstaged recently by his more telegenic allies. The week of adulation that followed Ronald Reagan’s death gave Bush a sympathy boost but also reminded voters that Bush is not the Great Communicator. And Arnold Schwarzenegger, governor of California and international action-movie hero, told the New York Times on Thursday that he would be happy to speak at the Republican National Convention on behalf of the president. The article scarcely mentioned the president, instead describing the flamboyances of the governor's office, from its humidor to the governor's jade ring. Schwarzenegger knows that his personal story and mythology, like Clinton's and Moore's, have mass appeal, and he challenged the RNC, "If they're smart, they'll have me obviously in prime time." And they will.