TCS Daily

Why Kerry Lost

By John Ellis - November 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Five reasons, I think. In no particular order: Culture, Lifestyle, Rationale, Strategy, War.

Culture. Senator Kerry was never going to be credible as a faith-based candidate. It's not who he is and it's not what he's about. He didn't need to be. What he needed to do was let a vast swath of Americans (particularly in the middle of the country) know that he shared their cultural concerns. Chief among these are the porno-ization of American media, the sexualization of children and the "pimp and ho" Rap culture. Kerry never uttered a critical word of the media sewer. He aligned himself with Hollywood, the music industry and Big New York media. He paid the price in exurbia.

Lifestyle. Pick your poison: wind-surfing, wind-surfing outfits, snow-boarding outfits, $8000 bicycles, the daughter's dress at Cannes, Teresa, Nantucket. A veritable Robin Leach smorgasbord. Teresa especially was emblematic of the Kerry disconnect.

Rationale. Kerry's book on Bush might have been called Liar, Incompetent, Moron, Fool. It was never going to sell above 50%. It felt good and it ginned up the base, but a majority of people simply did not and do not share this view of President Bush. The court martial strategy was too harsh. A "gold-watch strategy" -- in which President Bush was thanked for his service and shown the door -- was much more in tune with the national mood.

Bush as initiator, Kerry as consolidator was a potentially powerful paradigm. And it would have enabled Kerry to portray Bush as spent; exhausted by the stress and bone-crushing pressures of the job. Americans were and are grateful to Bush for his superb leadership in the wake of 9/11. They were never going to fire him. They might have retired him.

Strategy. Did the Kerry campaign really imagine that they could out direct-market Karl Rove? By buying into the 17-state strategy, they walked right into Rove's trap. By reducing the battlefield, they enlarged the Bush campaign's tactical brilliance. The key to defeating Bush in the biggest national election since 1968 was to nationalize the race, not localize it. And the way to do that was to do it, with national campaign advertising, national campaigning and a direct national appeal that said: this is not Florida's election or Ohio's election, this is your election. You pay the bills, you have a right to be heard. I will not disenfranchise you. I will not marginalize your vote.

Yes, national advertising and campaigning is inefficient and expensive. But the Kerry camp had money to burn. Had they advertised nationally (and had the DNC supported national advertising with thematic national advertising of its own), the Kerry campaign could have built a much bigger lead in national polling and put a great deal more pressure on the Bush campaign early. By changing the scope of the battlefield, the Kerry campaign could have maximized the Bush campaign's most glaring weakness, which was communications.

War. I never thought the metaphor for Kerry's waffling on the War issue was the famous "I voted for it, before I voted against it" quote. John Edwards was the problem. A presidential campaign has five Big moments; the VP selection, the convention speech and the three debates. The first of these was a disaster for Kerry because it sent exactly the wrong message about his view of the War on Terror.

Had he chosen former Marine Corps Gen. Zinni (or someone like him), he could have said: "In choosing Gen. Zinni, I promise you that he will not be delegated to campaign for Democratic candidates, or be sent to attend state funerals. His sole job will be to coordinate the War on Terror and to do the planning for post-election Iraq. Toward that end, I have asked him to put together a comprehensive strategy, deliverable on October 1st, that will become the roadmap for our counter-terrorism efforts, our Middle East initiatives and our anti-proliferation campaigns. I will reveal that plan on October 15th. A final plan will be ready by December 15th. In the event that we are elected, we will not miss a beat as the baton passes hands."

Choosing Zinni would have elevated Kerry substantially on national security issues. I don't think he could have achieved parity, but it would have enabled him to focus more of his campaign on domestic concerns (which were more favorable to him politically). Choosing Edwards, who turned out to be Quayle Lite, gained him nothing at all politically and represented the largest opportunity cost on the Kerry campaign ledger. Indeed, it may have cost him the election.

The author, a TCS contributor, is partner in a New York venture capital firm and senior fellow at the West Point Center for Combatting Terrorism.


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