Kerry's bad week

By Geraldine Sealey
Published March 18, 2004 11:40PM (EST)

John Kerry has said repeatedly: Bring it on. And Bush-Cheney '04 has done just that. As any political observer would know, this week wasn't good for Kerry. He's been complicit in his troubles, giving the president's attack machine and its media-driven echo chamber enough material to cheapen the political debate and distract America from scrutinizing the president and his failed policies.

Here's a perfect example: Bush-Cheney '04 releases a misleading ad in West Virginia this week called "Troops" railing on Kerry's vote against the $87 billion post-Iraq war bill. Kerry's campaign issued a valid defense of his vote, and pointed out how Bush has actually undermined troop safety, pay and benefits. Then Kerry says this: "I actually did vote for his $87 billion, before I voted against it." Bingo, says Karl Rove, a classic Kerry flip-flop! Now, the AP reports, the Bush campaign has taken that gem, tacked it on the West Virginia ad, and re-released it with a new title: "Troops-Fog."

This misstep followed another quote that kept cable news anchors in business for days -- the "crooked, lying" comment Kerry didn't back away from. And there was also the "foreign leaders want me to win" remark. Kerry's underlying point, that world opinion of Bush is low, is valid. But Kerry lost control of the debate and it became a silly duel about whether Kerry would "name names." Daily Kos shows how the Republicans have been winning this week: "Every time Bush lies, it forces Kerry to set the record straight, taking him off message and wasting a news cycle in the process. The last few days have shown the tactic works better than the truth, and expect a lot more of this crap over the next half-year."

But this isn't just Kerry's problem. It's a party problem, and one for anyone who wants to see new leadership in Washington. Which begs the question: Where are Kerry's surrogates? Where is the unified Democratic Party we heard so much about during the primaries? Howard Dean came out to support Kerry on Wednesday, and ended up generating controversy by suggesting Bush's war in Iraq led to the Madrid bombings. Dean later <a target= "new" href="clarified the remark and reporters chased Kerry until he distanced himself from Dean.

Kerry did get some other help this week from prominent Democrats. Bill and Hillary Clinton sent a fundraising email out to rally financial support, as did James Carville. Richard Holbrooke did a fine job on CNN deflecting the "leaders" flap. Wes Clark, Bill Richardson and Madeleine Albright also came to Kerry's aid. But it's clearly not enough, and in general, the Democrats haven't put together a united front. Over at Counterspin Hesiod has a great riff on this theme and asks: "How pathetic is it when John McCain does more to defend John Kerry than the Democratic party?!?" (See the quote of the day at right for reference.)

At Eschaton, Atrios suggests the outlines of a rapid response strategy. "The Democrats have about 250 members of Congress. They have numerous official and non-official allies. They need to figure out how to use them to run this campaign in the 24/7 news cycle in a media landscape which is much more fractured than it was back in 1992. At any point in time, they need to have dozens of people ready to fan out to every possible media outlet and perform the inverse judo flip any time the Bush machine turns on the slime. There should be a small army, including a couple top generals, ready to lend their voice on any subject at any time. They should be briefed and prepped with the latest talking points, and they should be out there screaming them at every opportunity."

Particularly on national security, Bush was vulnerable this week, with stepped up bloodshed in Baghdad, the aftermath of a terror attack in a Western capital, a European ally thrown out of office, and a poll showing we're alienating the world. A unified, on-message Democratic Party would have seized the opportunity to show America how they'd lead differently. But just in time for the anniversary of the Iraq invasion -- a critical moment for Americans to hear from their leaders -- and as his conservative critics go to town, Kerry is having downtime on the slopes in Idaho. Everyone needs a break, and no one knows that better than our vacationer-in-chief George W. Bush, but maybe this isn't the time. (Is this really the kind of photo Kerry wants publicized right now? The world remembers the Iraq invasion and ponders the state of international security, and Kerry jumps on a snowboard ... ) Unless, of course, Kerry uses this breather to regroup and come back swinging. We still have more than seven months before the election, after all, and as Karl Rove suggested on Wednesday while gloating over his recent political successes: There's more where that came from.

Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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