September 11, 2004


Bush and Kerry Step Up Attacks in Swing States (RICHARD W. STEVENSON and DAVID M. HALBFINGER, 9/11/04, NY Times)

Mr. Kerry's advisers concede that the drumbeat of attacks from Mr. Bush has been effective. But divisions have surfaced in the campaign and in the party over how best - and how far - to take on Mr. Bush.

As a first step, the Kerry campaign this week dispatched the Democratic National Committee to go after Mr. Bush on his military record, and to begin criticizing Mr. Bush as a liar and a sheltered "son of privilege" who used connections to avoid combat in his youth and was out of touch with ordinary Americans.

Officials said these attacks were being made through the party and not the campaign to provide a measure of distance from Mr. Kerry, who is described by many officials as reluctant himself to impugn the president's character.

Now, the more difficult question, officials say, is just how the Kerry campaign - even if Mr. Kerry does not take part directly - should go after Mr. Bush. Some of Mr. Kerry's closest friends and longtime political operatives from Boston, who have now set up shop at Democratic headquarters in Washington, are pressing for more, saying the campaign and the candidate must go on the offensive, to restore Mr. Kerry's own character as a political asset and to hold Mr. Bush accountable for attacks on Mr. Kerry.

These friends and former aides, led by David Thorne, a Yale classmate, fellow Navy veteran and brother of Mr. Kerry's first wife, are agitating for the candidate himself to answer what they called the character-assassination attacks of people like Vice President Cheney and members of Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. They are pushing for Mr. Kerry to make a dramatic statement of his own to settle voters' doubts about Mr. Kerry's Vietnam War period.

Officials in the campaign, however, including both longstanding consultants like Bob Shrum and new additions like Joe Lockhart and other veterans of the Clinton administration, have balked at such a move, saying it could be a disaster and alienate too many swing voters who would view such an approach as mean-spirited. They said Mr. Kerry would do better to concentrate on issues where he outperforms Mr. Bush in polls, like jobs and health care.

A critical concern, several campaign officials said, is that polls have already shown Mr. Kerry's negative ratings rising recently, making it an exceptionally dangerous moment for him to attack Mr. Bush personally, since voters typically react with disapproval when candidates do so.

Mr. Kerry's "character has been damaged," said one ranking campaign official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And the campaign failed to defend the guy. We're in a tough spot. Some of the work we do on George Bush has to come from other parties.''

We've talked before about how negative campaigning drives up your own negatives, even as it drives up your opponents. Someone like George Bush, whose image and character are etched in stone in American minds, can afford to be negative in a way that someone completely amorphous in peoples' mind, like the Senator, can not. Here we see why it was disastrous for the campaign to eschew biography when they had a chance to shape the Senator's image themselves. By not doing so they left it to Republicans to define John Kerry and now he can do nothing but try and defend himself. even that they've done ineptly as when they went to the convention and tried convincing us he was John Wayne in the Green Berets, a trope easily demolished by showing his 1971 Senate testimony and the tossing of his medals.

As the story says, they are now well and truly stuck.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 11, 2004 12:36 PM

Nonetheless, Kerry has no other winning option: He has to go nuclear in October.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 11, 2004 12:48 PM


But that could drive his negatives to such high levels that it becomes difficult to get any turnout. That's the doomsday scenario for the Party. If they want to remain competitive in the Congress they need him to shut up and take the bullet, a la Mondale or Dole.

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2004 1:07 PM

For this guy to take a bullet in November would be his first, in a lot of ways.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at September 11, 2004 1:27 PM

From way out here, sometimes it seems like both of them are running to be president of Ohio

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 11, 2004 3:14 PM

The "nuclear option" for Kerry has been defused a great deal by the current CBS document kerfuffle. It will be hard for either side to unleash any sudden, sensational new evidence about past events without the very idea of such evidence showing up at such a late time being called into question. Any late bombshell will now have to be accompanyed by extremely strong collabarative data (something, if it does happen, the swift boat vets are in a far better position to document than the Kerry camp is on any new Bush allegations) or the public is just going to tune out.

That would leave Kerry with either having to run on his record to catch Bush -- a "Let Kerry be Mondale" strategy -- or hope the U.S. suffers some major foreign or domestic disaster in the next 50 days to save his bacon. Since running on his record would mean either having to admit his 20 years of liberal voting in the senate or totally repudiating his past stances, odds are only Al-Zarqawi or Mookie could possibly bail him out now.

Posted by: John at September 11, 2004 4:45 PM

Negative campaigning works, and most especially when there is truth to what is being said. It always hurt Dole, who tended to be a snarler (plus, he could never live down Newt's comment - 'the tax collector for the welfar state').

It hurt Dukakis because he was an unsettled, prissy candidate. It hurt GHW Bush because he was not decisive on domestic issues and because he did raise taxes.

What Kerry has to recognize is that the negatives are working against him for a very good reason.

Posted by: jim hamlen at September 11, 2004 5:02 PM

Problem here is that the first grenade that the new Kerry negative campaign tossed (the TANG papers) went of in their face. No purple heart for that one.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at September 13, 2004 2:07 AM

As a sixteen year old, watching Kerry and Bush go at it has been humorous at times. I think Kerry is on a downward spiral, especially after attempting comebacks with Bush war banter.

Posted by: Faith at September 29, 2004 3:52 PM