On the Question of Boldness
Just how bold does John Kerry need to be? There's certainly a reasonable argument that he doesn't need to be bold at all. As pollster Mark Penn remarked in some story I read, many successful campaigns have been run on little more than "it's time for a change".
Can John Kerry get away with such an approach? Maybe. Certainly, his lack of a bold approach in one area--Iraq--has seemed to work fairly well so far. As discussed in my previous post, Kerry has resisted putting forward an exit strategy for Iraq, choosing instead to focus on improving and internationalizing Bush's policy by bringing in NATO troops, establishing an international high commissioner for Iraq, more training for Iraq's own security forces and so on. This may not be a crystal clear alternative to the direction of Bush's policy but, as Bush's policy has imploded and dragged him down politically, Kerry's campaign has been able to benefit from Bush's woes nonetheless.
For some, this has been exactly the right approach and should be continued indefinitely (see, for example, Noam Scheiber's comments in his New Republic blog). The theory is that anything as specific as an exit strategy on Kerry's part would shift the political conversation away from the actually-existing mess in Iraq and toward discussion of Kerry's strategy and whatever Bush's counter to that strategy would be. That would be bad since that would interfere with hanging the whole Iraq mess around Bush's neck and forcing him to "own it", as the expression goes.
Could be. But doesn't it come down to how well you think such an approach fits into the generally-accepted two stage process by which a challenger can beat an incumbent president? First, voters have to decide they're interested in firing the incumbent; then they have to decide that the challenger is a good alternative to the incumbent. Clearly, the cautious approach fits well into the first part of the process--as voters are getting convinced the incumbent needs to go, why confuse them with a lot of "bold" ideas from the challenger? Let the voters think long and hard about how bad the incumbent is, not the detailed plans of the challenger.
So far so good. But it is in the second part of the process--voters deciding they want to hire the challenger--that an approach distinguished mostly by caution can run into trouble. Granted, if voters hate the incumbent enough, the challenger can do and say very little and still appear to be a compelling alternative to voters. But, for all Bush's problems, I don't think this is going to be one of those elections. Among swing voters--not Democratic voters, who I believe will cut Kerry a great deal of slack in the agenda department--the distaste for Bush does not run deep enough. They will need a reason to believe in John Kerry.
Which brings us back to Iraq. David Corn has an interesting piece, "How Bold Should Kerry Go", on The Nation website, which quotes a Democrat close to Kerry's foreign policy team as saying:
Kerry is playing it very cautiously. It's a prevent-defense kind of game. He's counting on Bush to keep making mistakes. I'm skeptical of it. But it could work. My fear is that he's not setting a strong enough foundation for people not only to reject Bush but to embrace Kerry.
Exactly. Among voters who need to be convinced the most, cautious may not cut it. Here's a revealing passage from a good article by Tim Grieve on Salon about Kerry's recent campaiging:
Oddly, it's the more conservative Democrats -- plus swing voters and Republicans thinking of crossing over -- who may need to hear more of Kerry's Iraq alternative. Beverly Weyenberg, a retiree who turned out to see Kerry in Green Bay Thursday night, saw the candidate on TV about six months ago and knew instantly that he'd be her choice. "I felt it so strongly that I wrote it down on my calendar," she says, adding that she "felt the same way about John F. Kennedy." Still, she gets a little teary when she starts to thinking about those "kids" dying in Iraq, and she wants to know Kerry's plan for bringing them home soon.
So, too, does a Republican shuttle-bus driver in Green Bay who voted for Bush in 2000 but is having second thoughts now. He can't help thinking that the war was really about oil, that Donald Rumsfeld is hiding something. He trusts Bush because he trusts Colin Powell, but with Powell on the outs he's worried. He's thinking about Kerry, he said, but he's worried that Kerry won't be able to get out of Iraq, either.
Sure, these anecdotes are hardly definitive, but they get at what's worrying me about the Kerry approach. There's a point at which stage one (reject the incumbent) must turn into stage two (hire the challenger) and, so far, I'm not convinced Kerry's got his stage two mojo working.
And I don't just mean on Iraq and foreign policy. I mean in the domestic arena too. But that's a subject for another post.