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Sunday, September 26, 2004

The New Reublic Online > CAMPAIGN JOURNAL Comeback? by Ryan Lizza

September 26, 2004
Post date 09.23.04 | Issue date 10.04.04 or John Kerry, September seems to be going about as badly as August. Nearly every national poll shows George W. Bush ahead. Recent state polls have shown Kerry's leads fading across many battlegrounds. Amazingly, one poll shows the race tied in what should be solidly Democratic New Jersey. Kerry hasn't been able to catch a break with the press, either. If August was dominated by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacks, in September, the news media have been obsessed with the slow-motion takeover of the Kerry campaign by new strategists and the fake-document scandal at CBS. Once jubilant, Democrats are now depressed.
But, as with every swing in momentum in this campaign, the new round of obituaries being written for one of the candidates seems premature. The week in which Kerry plummeted to his low point in the state polls may eventually be seen as the week he turned his campaign around. On Monday, Kerry went to New York University (NYU) and talked about Iraq. Advisers had previously suggested that Kerry would try to steer the debate toward domestic issues in the campaign's final weeks. Kerry's credibility on national security and terrorism had been badly damaged by the Swift Boat attacks and the Republican convention, and aides seemed desperate to refocus the campaign on meat-and-potatoes Democratic issues.
For a host of reasons, however, that plan seemed increasingly ridiculous. For one, recent jobs data is not dismal enough to make the economy the centerpiece of the campaign. Secondly, Bush's calendar included last Thursday's speech before the National Guard Association, Tuesday's address to the United Nations, and this Thursday's Rose Garden appearance with Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. Thirdly, the all-important first debate will be held on September 30, and, at the Bush campaign's insistence, it will focus on foreign policy and homeland security. Concentrating on domestic issues would have allowed Bush to portray himself as a capable commander-in-chief for the next week without challenge. Moreover, ignoring Iraq would have allowed Bush to continue to gloss over bad news from the region and to conflate the war in Iraq with the overall war on terrorism--two key elements of his campaign strategy. Finally, Kerry had to address what has been the Bush team's most successful criticism of him: that his positions, particularly on Iraq, shift with the political winds. Clearly, as his staffers like to say, Kerry had to turn his boat into enemy fire like he did in Vietnam and make a full frontal assault on Iraq.

escriptive rather than prescriptive, Kerry's NYU speech was perhaps the strongest and most effective he has delivered in this campaign. In simple, clear language, Kerry explained what is wrong with Bush's Iraq policy. Unlike Bush's address to the United Nations the following day, Kerry's speech was light on rhetorical flourishes and abstract ideals, and heavy on facts. The number of Americans dying in Iraq has increased each month since June. The CIA's National Intelligence Estimate directly contradicts Bush's claims about progress in Iraq. The number of attacks against American forces has quadrupled since March. Significant portions of the country have been declared "no-go zones" for Americans because they are controlled by insurgents. Security for Iraqis is worsening. Jobs are scarce. Electricity is rare. "That is the truth," Kerry said flatly. "The truth that the commander-in-chief owes to our troops and the American people."
He made a similarly matter-of-fact presentation about Bush's decisions in Iraq. Bush has offered multiple, sometimes conflicting, justifications for the war. "His two main rationales--weapons of mass destruction and the Al Qaeda-September 11 connection--have both been proved false," Kerry said. Bush never honestly explained the cost, in money and lives, of the war, and, when advisers--General Eric Shinseki, former chief economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey--told the truth, they were nudged out of the government. Postwar planning was dismal. Americans were not greeted as liberators. Ahmed Chalabi was not George Washington. Elsewhere in the world, the Taliban is resurgent in Afghanistan, North Korea's nuclear arsenal has grown, and Al Qaeda has regrouped. Meanwhile, America's alliances have weakened. After laying all of this out, Kerry arrived at what has turned into a new stump-speech line: "Yet today, President Bush tells us that he would do everything all over again, the same way. How can he possibly be serious?"
The speech also succeeded in one of its major goals: differentiating the war in Iraq from the war on terrorism. Bush used his convention to conflate Saddam Hussein and the response to September 11, which helps him because his poll numbers are far better on terrorism than they are on Iraq. "One of the main reasons the president's numbers have gone up is that he has made a compelling case as to why the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror," says Republican pollster Whit Ayres. Kerry has finally started to untangle the two. "The most important thing we did was we put this front and center and de-linked it from the false association with the war on terror," says Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart. "Bush has dishonestly made this a part of the war on terror when it never was, and, in fact, it has harmed the war on terror."
The weakness of Kerry's speech lay in its prescriptions. The idea that he can cajole allies to replace American troops in Iraq, his most ambitious promise, seems fantastic. The rest of his plan--training Iraqi security forces, revamping the reconstruction program, and creating the proper conditions for elections next year--isn't revolutionary. Indeed, the Bush campaign immediately pointed out that the administration is pursuing that very course of action. But Kerry's case has little to do with these specific proposals, about which everyone agrees. Kerry's case is really characterological. After two years of incompetence, Bush simply can't be trusted to get these things right. "Iraq is a colossal failure for Bush," says Lockhart. "He's the one who has to defend his policy."

he immediate rebuttal to Kerry's speech from the Bush campaign was that Kerry had once again changed his position. Shortly after the speech, White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan walked to the rear of Air Force One and told reporters, "Senator Kerry, today, continued his pattern of twisting in the wind with new contradictions and more confusion on one of the most critical issues we face." Bush repeated the line almost verbatim at two campaign stops. Kerry wants to make the race about Bush's record on the most important issue we face. Bush wants to make the race about Kerry's consistency. Part of Kerry's gamble on Iraq is that, by keeping stubborn facts front and center, the press won't let Bush get away with simply resorting to the flip-flop charge. One good test of whether Kerry's new offensive has really broken through, and whether Monday's speech was indeed a decisive turning point of the campaign, will be whether Bush is actually forced to talk about the substance of Kerry's attack.
But, even if he doesn't, Kerry's ability to change the conversation from Vietnam, document forgeries, and other peripheral issues to the specific negative facts on the ground might pay dividends. Indeed, the impact of simply putting this case before the public has been immediate. The gap between Bush's stump-speech rhetoric and the reality in Iraq has quickly become a central narrative in campaign coverage. That could make a huge difference. Bush's poll numbers have tracked remarkably closely to perceived success and failure in Iraq, spiking when Saddam was captured, plunging after the photos from Abu Ghraib were publicized, and spiking again after a convention that put a happy face on the war. To the extent voters are pessimistic about Iraq's future, Kerry can be optimistic about his.
Republicans argue that Kerry's record has left him unable to take advantage of the issue no matter what happens. "Senator Kerry's multiple and conflicting positions have undermined him as a credible alternative on Iraq," says Ayres. Maybe. But Kerry still has a chance to change this impression in the debates. It's harder for Bush to alter the facts about Iraq. Says a senior Kerry adviser, "To the extent the mess in Iraq is front and center in [voters'] minds, George Bush suffers." At least that's what they're hoping.
Ryan Lizzais a senior editor at TNR.

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