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Passive Aggressive

By Russ Smith | Posted 9/15/2004

Now that George W. Bush has opened up a lead in both national and swing-state polls, rash analysts (Charles Cook, Larry Sabato, John Zogby, etc.) are backtracking from July assessments that the Nov. 2 election was “Kerry’s to lose.” The “experts” cite voter volatility, John Kerry’s lackluster convention, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads, among other factors, for the change in perspective. But the truth is that it was premature in midsummer to make predictions about this unparalleled presidential contest.

While I continue to believe that no one is likely to have any good inkling who will win the Oval Office until mid-October, after two debates have been held, Bush has a slight upper hand now that summer’s over. In the parlance of the junior senator from Massachusetts, you can imagine the recriminations from Democrats already, moaning, “Who among us doesn’t now think that Dick Gephardt would be leading President Bush at this juncture?”

Last winter, I lost several bets during the Democratic primaries, putting down money on Gephardt as the winner of the nomination, surmising that voters would realize that the most potent candidate against Bush had to be a bland, middle-class Washington insider who’d mount a low-profile campaign and let international and domestic events—and the intense hatred of the president—wash over the electorate.

In Gephardt, the Democrats possessed a man who voted for the war in Iraq but later criticized its strategy; the son of a postal worker who barely had two nickels to rub together; a family man (still married to his first wife) who was an Eagle Scout and did a stint in the military.

Never mind that Gephardt’s a creature of the Beltway, a dangerous protectionist, and changed his view on abortion from pro-life to pro-choice two decades ago. He’s a near-Walter Mondale clone, but as a candidate he hasn’t the vanity, effete affectations, Vietnam baggage, and association with New York and Hollywood liberals that currently dog the Kerry campaign.

I have enormous respect for Washington Postýsyndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer—one of those dreaded “neocons” who’s been smeared by opponents of Bush’s proactive Middle East policy—but he was wrong in a Sept. 10 piece that claimed Kerry was not an aggressive candidate. “Will [Bush’s] bounce last?” he asked. “Undoubtedly not. The Bush lead will narrow. But it will not be Kerry doing the narrowing. It will be the world. Bad news is always out there . . . Bush will slide. Kerry will surely fight, but he will mostly flail. He has become a spectator. This election was and remains a referendum on Bush. That’s how the Democrats wanted it.”

But Kerry hasn’t been a mere “spectator,” although that would’ve been the smart strategy. Instead, probably because he began planning his presidential run in prep school, the senator is delighted to pose with left-wing entertainers, whose wealth and celebrity isolates them from the electorate as a whole. People might flock to see Leonardo DiCaprio at the local cineplex, but in general they have no use for his views on the Bush doctrine of pre-emption. Ditto for Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and R.E.M. If Kerry wasn’t in his own bubble of wealth and Beltway advisers, he’d never have allowed the media to photograph him in resorts, skiing, windsurfing, or riding an $8,000 bicycle. He wouldn’t insist that his Vietnam service a generation ago is a prime qualification to be commander in chief during a 21st-century war. A “spectator,” the role that the more modest Gephardt could be expected to take, wouldn’t fumble his views on Iraq nearly every week. And a cleverer candidate would let surrogates call all Republicans “liars,” as Kerry did last spring.

Probably the most astute anti-Bush book released this summer is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas?, a frustrated assessment of why middle- and lower-class citizens in “flyover” country are dedicated Republicans, despite Frank’s opinion that these people are left in the economic dust of Bush’s domestic programs. I don’t agree with Frank, but at least his examination of today’s political culture isn’t blemished by mere sloganeering, unlike the books of Al Franken, Michael Moore, and Eric Alterman. (On the flip side, the best sellers of Republicans like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity are similarly unreadable.)

Frank, who was at the Democrat’s Boston convention as a journalist, was repulsed by the corporate glitz and pomposity of the gathering. Writing in The Los Angeles Times on July 29, he said, “And when the party was over, a woman in a headset barked, ‘C’mon celebrities,’ hustling the exalted ones into the elevator, on to their next party. That left the old-fashioned idealists, the delegates with their imperfect faces and imperfect lives, back in the convention hall, trying to win an election.”

Kerry has adopted running mate John Edwards’ “Two Americas” theme as his own, even though most citizens know which America he lives in (likewise for Edwards, Bush, and Dick Cheney). Had the Democrats chosen Gephardt, or someone less self-absorbed, there would be more optimism today in the out-of-power party’s camp.

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