The Wall Street Journal provides a counterpoint, arguing that the Anybody But Bush Democrats are a force to be reckoned with. They argue that a political tsunami is rarely discovered until it breaks, and the left is largely united in its hatred of Bush. However, they also note this:
All of which shows that Mr. Kerry and his party aren’t running on ideology. They have been running mainly on character and the Senator’s biography as the anti-Bush. He won three purple hearts in Vietnam while Mr. Bush stayed home in the National Guard. He’s smart and sees the nuances of issues that the uncurious and witless Mr. Bush doesn’t. He’d get the Europeans to love us again, while Mr. Bush the cowboy cannot.
Perhaps the voters will find this reason enough to return Democrats to power. But we wonder. Successful challengers to incumbent Presidents are usually associated with some cause larger than themselves. Bill Clinton ran on the economy and health care in 1992, while Reaganism was the confluence of a generation of conservative ideas on economics, foreign policy and the culture. Is there a single idea, even one, that any voter could yet associate with a Kerry Presidency? This would be the week to let the country in on one.
The fact is that Kerry’s campaign has been thus far unable to elucidate any kind of overall theme – although we’re sure to get one in Boston. Edwards’ "Two Americas" theme won’t fly – it’s a stump speech that appeals to Democrats, but sounds rather dischordant for a campaign with one of the richest candidates in American history. It’s also a negative theme – and the Democrats are going to try and put a positive spin on the Kerry ticket. What we’re likely to get is a bizarre mix of pseudo-populism as a whitewash over the snarling hatred of Bush that is the real force behind the Democrats this year.
The question is, will this hate lead Kerry into office? I’m opimistic that it will not, but there is reason to fear such a scenario. If Kerry wins, he will be the weakest and most ineffectual President since Carter as the only force keeping the Democrats coherent evaporates and the party fractures along the many fault lines that exist just under the surface. Paradoxically, the Democrats might be best served by losing this year – the hatred of Bush is the only think keeping their party coherent, and without it they’ll likely fracture – sending moderate Democrats like Zell Miller increasingly towards the Republicans.
On the other hand, I think the WSJ is right when they say that political tsunamis are rarely apparent until they hit – but not in the way they intended. In late December/early January, who would have predicted the rapid collapse of the Dean movement? Dean had everything needed for success – a vigorous campaign, a dedicated following, and plenty of money. John Kerry was mortgaging his mansion to keep his campaign solvent. Yet by the end of Iowa it was clear that Dean was sunk – the scream became a symbol of a campaign that had gone off the rails.
Kerry has yet to reach his “Yearrgh!” moment, but something tells me it’s coming. The Kerry campaign has made some crucial mistakes, from Rolls-Royces on press badges to Teresa Heinz-Kerry lecturing everyone on civility in politics before telling a reporter to “shove it.” The Kerry campaign has fumbled and fumbled, and all it takes is one major slip for fortunes to change.
While the GOP does not even have the remotest luxury of complacency, the pronouncements of Bush’s imminent political failure are quite premature. This is going to be a close race, but Bush has been in close races before. The anger of the Anybody But Bush crowd is a potent political force, but anger didn’t work for Dole in 1996, it didn’t work for Dean in the primaries, and Kerry is going to have to start finding a message other than hatred of Bush if he’s to take the election.