The land mines awaiting John Kerry

The Democratic front-runner can maintain his post-New Hampshire momentum, but only if he avoids these four risks, temptations and deficits of campaign style.

By Joe Conason
January 29, 2004 12:28AM (UTC)
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With all due respect to spin, only one Democrat can plausibly claim momentum from Tuesday night's results in New Hampshire. That is John Kerry, of course -- but unlike last year, when the pollsters and pundits anointed him as the front-runner, the Massachusetts senator's two important victories this week confirm his power to persuade voters. Now he's the target again. Having long felt that Kerry possesses qualities and experience that recommend him -- despite his defects as a retail politician -- I hope he understands the problems and perils he will confront:

The perception of "electability" can quickly become a trap. It tends to encourage excessive caution, which in turn leads to voter disillusionment and apathy. Kerry already suffers from a reputation for caution and opportunism, when he is also quite capable of daring and toughness. I first began to think that he could rouse the Democratic Party from its terrible torpor during the summer of 2002, when he called out Trent Lott and Tom DeLay as chicken hawks and threatened to filibuster against oil drilling in the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge. He should emphasize his historical willingness to stand alone and fight for what he believes.


To talk about conceding the South is a stupid error. Although Kerry hasn't endorsed a north-of-Mason-Dixon strategy, he hinted that the Democrats don't need Southern states to win in November. That may be technically true, as a matter of electoral college math, but it should never be mentioned again by him or anyone in his campaign. Instead, Kerry should emphasize his desire to unite the country across regional, ethnic and religious divisions. His status as a decorated veteran will allow him to seek support among military communities in every state, especially in the South and West -- where alienation from the White House is growing. The Democrats have to take their campaign into "red states" wherever possible, or else the Republicans will put them on the defensive in the "blue states."

Press criticism of populist rhetoric deserves to be ignored. Owing to its own centrist and conservative biases, the media habitually discourages politicians from articulating the populist themes that have recently energized all of the Democratic contenders. When Michael Dukakis ran as a technocrat in 1988, his numbers kept falling until, too late, he reached for populist speeches against the plutocratic Bush regime. When Al Gore delivered his combative convention speech in 2000, the press gallery almost unanimously disparaged its "old-fashioned" populism. Gore's numbers soared, proving that the mainstream wisdom is always wrong, but he made the mistake of listening to them anyway and squandered his lead. Voters want a competent leader who they believe is on their side. Nearly every poll ever taken about George W. Bush shows they know he isn't that leader.

Brevity is both merciful and wise. That advice is particularly pertinent for a stiff speaker like Kerry. His speaking style, rather than his voting record or his personal history, is reminiscent of the lamentably lame Michael Dukakis. Kerry tends to disdain the repetitive, rousing style that motivates voters, and to favor lengthy, discursive explanations that only bore them. His handlers ought to challenge him by pointing out that Bush -- a man of very limited verbal facility -- has mastered stump speaking. Kerry still must learn to keep it crisp. If he doesn't, he could still lose the nomination to the far more eloquent and animated John Edwards.
[11:30 a.m. PST, Jan. 28, 2004]


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Joe Conason

Joe Conason is the editor in chief of To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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2004 Elections George W. Bush John Edwards John F. Kerry