Friday, July 30, 2004
What a lousy speech.
No, I didn't see it delivered. I read the transcript. Maybe if you were watching it, or listening to it, it worked better. But on paper, it's just weak.
The first sixth of the speech is nothing but me, me, me. I'm reporting for duty. I was born in the West Wing. I rode my bicycle into East Berlin and saw the horrors of Communism with my own eyes. Me, me, me and only 100 words about Kerry's three-decade record of public service: he targeted rapists and wife-beaters as a prosecutor, voted for a balanced budget and helped normalize relations with Vietnam. Isn't anyone embarrassed? The guy has been in politics his whole life and he has *nothing to say* about his political accomplishments. And the "personal history" section is worse than the very brief review of his record: nothing memorable, nothing humanizing, nothing that actually suggests a personality. It would be hard to write a worse resume section of the speech.
Then, "this is the most important election of our lifetime." Why? Well, we're at war. But let's not talk too much about that; really, this is the most important election of our lifetime because the middle class is squeezed by rising costs and stagnating wages.
Now, this is a legitimate problem. And Kerry's section on economic performance is a relative high point in the speech. But is this really the reason this is "the most important election of our lifetime"? Is our economic situation more precarious than in 1980, say, to pick a point within the lifetime of pretty much everyone voting in this election?
Then there are the tone-deaf echoes of great speeches given by others. I cringed at, "on behalf of a new birth of freedom" in the middle of a laundry list of cliche reasons to accept the nomination. Sometimes the speech felt written not only by a committee but a committee that edits with a blender rather than a blue pencil.
I winced at the paragraph about the flag - "Old Glory," "the stars and stripes forever." Not because the ultimate message - that Republicans have no monopoly on patriotism - is a bad message; it's a good, an essential message. I winced because the passage was so overstated that it undermined its message in the end.
And the Vietnam band-of-brothers business. You know, there are ways to make this work. McCain makes it work. Bob Kerry makes it work. Bob Dole made it work (and he was more like Max Cleland, an unlucky guy who "got shot" in Dole's own words, than a hero like McCain or Bob Kerry - or, to give him his props, a valiant officer like John Kerry). But John Kerry's invocation of his war experience, and the bond with his band, comes off as so pretentious precisely because he uses it so ham-fistedly to bolster his sense of moral superiority.
What does his vaunted combat experience mean to him, how does it shape the way he'd behave as Commander in Chief? Primarily, it means: he will be averse to the use of force.
Now, it's a fair attack on President Bush that he was too willing to use force in Iraq, and (more telling, I think) too wilfully blind to the potential negative consequences of using force. Whether or not I agree with the critique or with the decision to go to war in Iraq in retrospect, it's certainly fair game for political attack, and Kerry will push it.
But the mountain Kerry has to climb is to convince the American people that he'll be tough and decisive enough to use force when it *is* warranted. And Kerry had essentially nothing to say about that.
The fear that many folks on the fence have about Kerry as C-in-C is that "complexity" is a euphamism for indecision and procrastination. That Kerry's nuanced understanding of the world is not something he deploys to craft supple and intelligent policy, and protect American interests with less collateral damage than has been the case with the Bush Administration, but that it is a way of justifying inaction and protection himself personally against being damned in hindsight for making the wrong decision. What did Kerry do to dispel that fear last night? Not much that I can see.
All Kerry's talk about "responding" to attacks and about waging war when threats are "imminent" is designed to telegraph a single message: I will not take the war to the enemy.
I don't think that's an appealing message. Americans are rightly angry about the botched job in Iraq. Some who might otherwise be solid Bush voters, but are now undecided, think the war was justified but that it was handled dreadfully. Others in a similar situation think the war was *not* justified, the product of group-think and a kind of idee fixe rather than rational analysis. Neither of these groups fault Bush for being aggressive in his defense of American interests; they fault him for incompetence and ideological blindness. Kerry will not reassure them by telegraphing his own reluctance to act.
Kerry says he will get us out of Iraq by getting our allies to share the burden, and that he will be more effective at working with other nations to catch the terrorists. Those are messages America wants to hear; most people want us out of Iraq and most people are not pleased that so much of the world is angry at us. The implicit message is: the troubles we're having with our European and other allies are more the fault of bad personal chemistry and bungling by our current President than they are of genuinely differing interests and conflicting policies. I happen to think that understanding is badly wrong, but it's a message that works for Kerry, and he should keep using it. But again: to make it work he needs to avoid suggesting that he would *defer* to allies in setting American policy. And I think he badly failed to do that.
The problem is a lack of balance. If all Kerry says is what he *won't* do, people will wonder if there's anything he *will* do. And there are things that people want the President to do. People who worry that we are losing the war on terrorism think we have been too *slow* in responding to certain threats, not aggressive *enough.* Some of these people think Iraq was a counterproductive distraction, but none of these people want a President who is operates in a purely reactive mode. And Kerry gave these people essentially nothing to hang on, no positive program for how to fight the war. That's very bad, I think, and it's the weakness that Bush is most likely to pick up on and hammer at for the rest of the campaign.
The best attack-paragraph in the whole speech: the one about values, and how values without actions are just slogans. That's an old line against Republican "family-values" talk. But it's a good one to use against Bush specifically because one attack on Bush that hits home is that he thinks that if his *values* are right that necessarily his policies will have good *results.* That's ultimately a more telling critique of Bush's foreign policy than it is of his "family values" talk, but that's precisely why it's a good attack; as a critique of "family values" it's a cliche that won't convince anyone who isn't already a Democrat.
I breezed through the "real people" who are suffering under the Bush Administration; you can always find these kinds of anecdotes and they always sound the same. What's Kerry's economic plan?
1. Incentives to revitalize manufacturing. I don't know what this refers to, and Kerry declined to elaborate in the speech.
2. Investment in technology. Don't we have a problem with a hangover from the 1990s *over-investment* in technology? Is Kerry talking about anything here, or is this just copied from the 1992 Democratic platform?
3. Close tax loopholes that reward companies that outsource jobs overseas. This will have a negligible impact on employment trends, and Kerry knows it.
4. "Fair trade." I'm quite sure this means nothing at all; Kerry has a good record as a free trader and he's been scrupulous about never explaining what, specifically, he'd do to change the rules of international trade. I'm sure protectionist-minded manufacturing-sector unions can see through this.
5. Fiscal responsibility. I suspect Kerry actually means this, more than Clinton did in 1992. I actually think he'll propose much less spending as President than he will as a candidate, and that he will raise taxes, so the deficit should go down. But I don't think this is a big vote-getter. This is not 1992; the deficit is simply not the biggest economic issue on the public's mind. Maybe it should be, but I don't believe it is. I think people are worried about underemployment and rising inflation much more than they are about the budget.
Then there's a bunch of boilerplate on the usual Democratic issues of education, health care, etc. Nothing interesting here, just a recap of the usual themes. "Energy independence" is a new one on the list, but it's even more of a fantasy than most of the others. The impression I get based on this list is the same as I got from Al Gore's acceptance speech in 2000: this man is not running to *do* anything. He's trotting out the usual suspects that his party wants to hear about, but he has no ideas, no vision, no plans, and as President he will, by default, do nothing, and if he must do something he'll do what he thinks he needs to do to cover himself politically.
And finally, the long "One America", "we're all in one boat" coda. I think this is a good theme for Democrats, and Barack Obama showed how to play it. Kerry didn't. He didn't flub it badly, but it was kind of limp. Much of the section was phrased as an attack masquerading unconvincingly as a plea for an end to attacks. Some moments - "faith has given me values to live by" - struck me as utterly unconvincing. Two good lines: Kerry promised to "enlist people of talent, Republicans as well as Democrats" and, much more so, "I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side." I think that expresses the real Kerry - he's not a religious man, and, while he's extraordinarily vain, and not at all humble in the face of other *people*, he is humble in the face of *reality* and therefore intrinsically cautious. He thinks he's better than anyone else, but he doesn't think *anyone* is especially good at shaping the world. He's constitutionally conservative in that way. And that kind of conservatism has its appeal - particularly in contrast to the Bush Adminsitration, and not only with convinced Democrats. Plus Kerry has so little authenticity, any little bit helps.
Was the speech a disaster? No. But I don't think it did the job. Dukakis' speech in 1988 was well-received but fundamentally empty and cautious. "Competence not ideology" seemed clever, but it turned out to be a lousy rallying-cry. He came out of the convention looking stronger than he really was, and ultimately got massacred at the polls. Clinton's acceptance speech in 1992 was absolutely magnificent, and played a real role in changing the dynamic of the campaign. "New Covenant" wasn't just another riff on "New Deal" and "New Frontier" - it actually encapsulated what this ticket stood for and how it differentiated itself from the previous few Democratic nominees. Ross Perot dropped out in large part because he saw the Democrat resurgence, and Bush never found his footing once he lost the leadership of the race. Dole's speech in 1996 was beautiful and moving, but Clinton figured out the weakness - that it was exclusively backward-looking - and his "Bridge to the 21st Century" response was treackly but devastatingly effective. The electorate decided that Dole was a good man, but not likely to be a successful President. Gore's speech in 2000 was reasonably effective at one thing - it got Democrats excited about him, which they had not been. But it was lousy as a message to the country at large, and it - and he - did not wear well. Gore came off as angry and combative, and no one could figure out who he was fighting since he'd been in office for the past eight years. Was he fighting Clinton? His father? Himself? Once people are doing this much psychoanalysis, it's hard for them to trust you as their President. Bush's acceptance speech in 2000 was better, though I didn't think it was masterful. The section about "growing up before we grow old" struck me as atrocious Boomer self-centeredness. But the speech was disciplined, organized, and clear - like the campaign. It showcased Bush's strengths and hid his weaknesses. It did the job.
Kerry's speech was not a disaster. But it reminds me more of Dukakis and Dole than of Clinton, and it had none of Dole's poetry to redeem it. It was fundamentally cautious and not convincing, and it was fundamentally backward-looking both in the degree to which it was an attack on Bush's decisions (without offering a clear alternative) and the degree of vagueness and real lack of interest when it touched on traditional Democratic themes.
I don't think it did for Kerry what Kerry needed done. If Bush's speechwriters figure out the right speech to get him out of his own bunker, the contrast in speeches could seriously change the campaign, and make it very hard for Kerry to catch up. Bush now has the upper hand. Let's see if he knows how to play it.