Waiting for the Candidate to Emerge


New York Times

September 20, 2004

I had a feeling John Kerry was in trouble when, coming out of the primaries, voters kept saying they were for him because he could win. It was clear that many voters had cast primary ballots for Mr. Kerry not because they liked him, or because they felt strongly about his positions on the issues, or because they were drawn to his compelling vision of a better future for the United States and the world, but simply because they felt he was capable of beating George W. Bush.

History tells us you need more of a rationale than that to win the White House. The best candidates offer the electorate not just something, but someone, to believe in. Describing the aftermath of Harry Truman's remarkable triumph over Thomas E. Dewey in 1948, the biographer David McCullough wrote:

"To such staunch Truman loyalists as Sam Rayburn and George Marshall, to the weary White House staff workers who had been with him all the way, there was never any question as to why Truman won. He had done it by being himself, never forgetting who he was, and by getting to the people in his own fashion."

Who is John Kerry? He doesn't seem to want to let on. More than anything else, he presents himself as someone who fought in Vietnam. But that was more than 30 years ago. Who is he now?

A longtime Democratic operative recently complained, "He's not displaying a moral center, or showing us a philosophical foundation. For him, it's all about tactics."

Mr. Kerry has suffered recently in the polls primarily because of his reluctance to put his authentic self on display. He's run a cautious, soulless campaign so far, saying only the things he thinks he should, and shadow boxing instead of really mixing it up, as if he were afraid, as Bonnie Raitt once memorably sang, "to throw a punch that might land."

If Mr. Kerry has a message, he's garbled it pretty badly. If he's passionate about anything, he's kept it to himself. George Adair, a 50-year-old Democrat from Alabama who responded to the latest New York Times/CBS News Poll, was succinct on this point: "I don't feel I have a clear enough picture of Mr. Kerry's agenda."

There is a hunger in America for change. Doubts are rising daily about the fiasco in Iraq. There is a sense that the threat of a terrorist attack in the U.S. may be increasing rather than receding. Economic insecurity remains high.

I believe American voters would exchange George W. Bush for a first-rate Democratic candidate in a heartbeat. More than 50 percent of the poll respondents believed the country was headed in the wrong direction. But the poll also showed that regardless of how the respondents intended to vote, 61 percent believed Mr. Bush would win in November.

Mr. Kerry has only a few weeks to turn things around. Nearly everyone who thinks the Bush administration has been a disaster for the United States is rooting for him. Sort of. More precisely, they are rooting for Mr. Bush to lose. And this, I think, is Mr. Kerry's fundamental problem.

He was selected by Democratic voters because they thought he could beat the president. But he has yet to exhibit the warmth or political savvy necessary to fully energize potential supporters and achieve that victory. An overly cerebral campaign fronted by a candidate too inhibited to blow the whistle on the insanity surrounding us is a big-time recipe for defeat.

John Kerry needs to make a stronger emotional connection with voters, and he won't be able to do that without revealing more of what he truly feels and believes - in other words, more of himself.

Voters may want change, but they don't want to step into the unknown. The race is still close enough for Mr. Kerry to prevail, and there are debates coming up. But time is short.

The No. 1 issue facing the United States is the war in Iraq. Senator Kerry intends to address that issue again this week. If he tries to finesse it, if he tries to play hawk and dove at the same time, if he fails to draw convincingly a clear and distinct line between his approach to this great tragic misadventure and that of the Bush administration, he might as well fold his campaign tents and go home.

Senator Kerry said over the weekend that he was ready to step up his campaign effort, that he was in a "fighting mood.'' We'll see.

Leadership at times requires great courage. John Kerry has not yet closed the deal with voters who are dissatisfied with President Bush. He may find, in the final weeks of this campaign, that the most important quality he can draw upon is the courage to be himself.