Kerry Off the Leash

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

October 20, 2004

John Kerry wasn't nominated because of his sparkling personality. He wasn't nominated because of his selfless commitment to causes larger than himself. He was nominated because he's a fighter. At the end of every campaign he comes out brawling. This was the guy who could take on Bush.

So nobody could imagine how incompetent, crude and over-the-top Kerry has been in this final phase of the campaign. At this point, smart candidates are launching attacks that play up the doubts voters already have about their opponents. Incredibly, Kerry is launching attacks that play up doubts voters have about him. Over the past few days, he has underscored the feeling that he will say or do anything to further his career.

In so doing, he has managed to squelch any momentum he may have had coming out of the first two debates. Some polls have him stagnant against Bush. More polls show Bush recovering from the debate season and now pulling slightly ahead. The blunt truth is that Kerry is losing the final phase of this campaign.

Let's review the string of heavy-handed assaults from the Kerry-Edwards campaign.

On Monday, Kerry told seniors in Florida that Bush is plotting a "January surprise" to cut their Social Security benefits by as much as 45 percent. "That's up to $500 a month less for food, for clothing, for the occasional gift for a grandchild."

As Kerry knows, that's ludicrous - it's a stale and transparent canard that Democrats have brought out in election after election, to less and less effect. President Bush has not entertained and would not entertain any plan that cut benefits to seniors. Bush would sooner give up any Social Security reform than cut benefits.

Kerry's second wild attack is that Bush would reinstate the draft. The administration, which hasn't even asked for trivial public sacrifices in a time of war, does not want to bring back the draft. The Pentagon does not want to bring back the draft. The Republican Party does not want to bring back the draft. Given the nature of military technology, it doesn't make sense to bring back the draft. There may be some in the bureaucracy taking precautions, but it is hard to imagine an attack with less basis in fact.

Kerry's third attack is the whole Mary Cheney thing. That's been hashed over enough. But remarkably, Kerry has not apologized. You use somebody's daughter to attack the father and his running mate. The parents are upset. The only decent thing is to apologize. If anything, an apology would make Kerry look admirable. But Kerry, in his permanent attack dog mode, can't do the decent and politically advantageous thing.

The fourth assault is Kerry's attack on the Bush administration's supposed "ban" on stem cell research. John Edwards's ludicrous statement that if Kerry was president, people like Christopher Reeve would be able to get up and walk was only the farcical culmination of a series of exaggerations about the possibilities of finding cures for Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries.

I'm not trying to make a moral point here about sleazy campaigning. Politics ain't beanbag, and in the final days of a close campaign, exaggerations are the norm. I'm talking about competence and what this period says about Kerry and his campaign.

Bush's key vulnerability is that people fear he is in over his head. By lashing out wildly, Kerry muddles all that. Instead his blunderbuss approach suggests a candidate devoid of perspective, driven by unattractive and naked ambition.

Why is he doing this? First, because in the insular Democratic world, George Bush is presumed to be guilty of everything, so the more vicious you can be about him, the better everybody feels.

But there is a deeper assumption, which has marred Democratic politics for years. Some Democrats have been unable to face the reality that people have been voting for Republicans because they agree with them. So these Democrats have invented the comforting theory that they've been losing because they are too virtuous for the country.

According to this theory, Republicans - or usually some omniscient, omnipotent and malevolent strategists, like Lee Atwater or Karl Rove - have been tricking the American people into voting against their true interests. This year, many Democrats decided, we'll be vicious in return.

The truth, however, is that voters are not idiots. They are capable of independent thought. If you attack your opponent wildly, ruthlessly, they will come to their own conclusions.