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Democrats Needed ‘Positive Approach’ And Are Delivering

Democrats here in Boston are excessively bullish about Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry’s chances of beating President Bush, but their convention strategy still is a good one and it’s being generally well executed. [IMGCAP(1)]

Kerry aides and other party strategists say that a majority of voters have made up their minds that they don’t want Bush re-elected and now merely need assurance that Kerry is a fit commander-in-chief and domestic policymaker.

The convention strategy flowing from this theory is to present a positive picture of Kerry and his program and avoid excessively harsh attacks on Bush that might offend swing voters.

That’s the script most speakers have followed. So, to the extent that voters are paying attention to what’s happening here — TV viewership is very low — they are getting a picture of the party and its nominee as moderate, patriotic, optimistic and determined to make America “stronger” and more united.

Democrats already are so hostile to Bush that speakers didn’t need to repeat the ad hominem attacks — “liar,” “extremist” — that have characterized pre-convention rhetoric. “Red meat” speeches conceivably could trigger ugly scenes.

That’s not to say there weren’t plenty of digs at Bush in speeches from former Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) and keynote speaker state Sen. Barack Obama, (D-Ill.) but they were couched as contrasts — especially between the Democrats’ “politics of hope” and Republicans’ “politics of fear” or “cynicism.”

Probably the lowest blows yet landed were thrown — deftly — by Clinton, who alleged that Republicans represent the “honestly held” belief that “the role of government is to concentrate wealth and power in the hands of those who hold their … views, leaving ordinary Americans to fend for themselves …

“Since most Americans are not that far right, they have to portray us as unacceptable, lacking in strength and values. In other words, they need a divided America,” he added.

Clinton went on to say that after Sept. 11, 2001, “We all wanted to be one nation,” but Bush and his Congressional allies decided to “use the moment of unity to push America too far to the right.” That amounts to a pretty incendiary charge of exploiting 9/11, but Clinton stopped short of making it overtly.

Carter, who used the word “extremism” three times to characterize Bush’s foreign policy, said that “in the world at large we cannot lead if our leaders mislead” and praised Kerry by saying that “he showed up when assigned to duty,” alluding to charges that Bush didn’t fulfill his National Guard obligations.

Democrats here have successfully stolen Bush’s 2000 unfulfilled promise to be a “uniter not a divider” — which Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg says is a “powerful theme” among voters — and no one exploited it better than Illinois Senate shoo-in Obama, adding the accusation that Republicans are “dividers.”

Dismissing the (accurate) notion that America is divided into Democratic “blue states” and GOP “red states,” he said, “We worship the same awesome God in the blue states, and we don’t like federal agents poking around our libraries in the red states.

“We coach Little League in the blue states and have gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and patriots who supported it. We are one people.”

At the same time, he said that the United States faced the choice between “a politics of cynicism” and a “politics of hope.” He also did his bit for Kerry, identifying him — against GOP charges — as a leader “who will not hesitate to use our military might to keep America safe and secure.”

The one speaker so far who struck me as less than effective in carrying the Democrats’ basic message was Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, who spent more of her speech identifying herself and her values to the audience than Kerry’s.

If she was trying to display herself as a plausible first lady to counter the popular Laura Bush, I thought she fell far short — identifying the Peace Corps as “the best face that America has ever projected” at a time when U.S. troops are dying and defending the rights of women (herself, presumably included) to be labeled “smart” instead of “opinionated.”

The positive-approach strategy is the right one for Democrats not because Bush is so far down that he can’t recover, but because voters still are uncertain about who Kerry is and what he stands for.

This was acknowledged by Kerry’s campaign manager, Mary Beth Cahill, in a breakfast meeting with reporters. “We are going back to Phase One of the campaign” — that is, identifying Kerry to voters — “even though you’d think we’d be at Phase 18 by now.”

Cahill and top Kerry strategist Tad Devine fastened on the fact that a Gallup poll shows that only 43 percent of the electorate says that Bush should be re-elected, against 52 percent who say they want “someone new.” Devine said that Bush is “in a historically weak position.”

Commentator and strategist James Carville went so far as to say at another breakfast that “if Bush wins, it will be one of the greatest political achievements of my lifetime. And I will say it on the day after the election. But it’s highly unlikely.”

I think the polls show that such an achievement is still entirely possible. Bush’s approval rating is still below 50 percent in most polls, but it seems to be rising lately. And, polls show that the Bush-Kerry race is close to dead even.

Moreover, Bush has yet to begin to make a positive case for himself, spend his remaining multimillions on pre-convention advertising, or stage his own party’s extravaganza in New York.

So, I’d say this race is far from over. But, if Kerry’s acceptance speech here tonight matches what’s come before, the Democrats will have done their job almost as well as it could be done.