Why Kerry Won: Our Equally Florid Correspondent Explains Everything

Editor’s Note: Campaign Desk turned loose two of its finest to write the definitive explanations of the election results — no matter who wins. Here is Part Two. We have spared no cliche. Expect to see either explanation in a newspaper near you on November 3.

By Brian Montopoli

One of the longest, most contentious, most expensive presidential campaigns in memory has culminated in the election of Senator John Kerry, who rode a tide of criticism of President Bush’s handling of the war in Iraq right into the oval office.

President Bush and his surrogates like to say that everything changed on 9/11. But one thing that didn’t change was the dynamics of presidential elections involving incumbents. Such elections are said to hang on the electorate’s feelings about the job performance of their leader, and this one did, with low approval ratings once again giving a member of the Bush family a one-term presidency.

Of course, Bush often tried to focus the spotlight on his opponent, portraying Kerry as a liberal who “would say almost anything to get elected.” But Kerry refused to play defense, opting instead to relentlessly hammer Bush for his handling of the war in Iraq and the war on terror, which he successfully compartmentalized into two opposite endeavors. His team of savvy advisors, recruited late in the game from the Clinton administration, understood that their candidate could take the prize simply by being seen as the lesser of two evils.

Like his father before him, there were times when George W. Bush looked unbeatable. He led a country united by the 9/11 attacks, capitalizing on a wave of popularity to push through domestic programs that might otherwise have been doomed. But while George Herbert Walker Bush’s engagement with Saddam Hussein garnered him political capital, his son was dragged down by a steady drumbeat of bad news in the weeks before the election, which left the picture of a grand adventure gone sour.

Karl Rove may well be a behind-the-scenes genius, but even he couldn’t find a way to win over an electorate disenchanted with the administration’s foreign policy (attack Osama bin Laden verbally, attack Saddam Hussein with guns and bombs). The arrival of a videotape from bin Laden just days before the election seemed to play right into Rove’s hands, focusing attention on the threat from abroad and tempting Americans to rally around the president. But in hindsight, it’s clear to this disinterested observer that the tape had the opposite effect, reminding voters that bin Laden was still on the loose, and that Bush had focused on the wrong swarthy lunatic with a beard. “I was leaning toward voting for Kerry all along, but that tape pushed me over the edge,” said Francine Madison, an Iowa voter who participated in multiple focus groups with seasoned pollster John Zogby. “I mean, if Bush is protecting us so well, why is that man still out there?”

Not long ago, it looked like voters might head to the polls more dismayed with the specter of a fluent-in-French, windsurfing president than with four more years of a brush-cutting cowboy (with two Ivy League degrees) fumbling about on the world stage. The president and his surrogates kept to one central theme throughout the campaign: that Kerry was an elitist flip-flopper who would worry a problem to death rather than act decisively. Kerry’s missteps didn’t help: He referred to a “global test” for American action during the debates; he said he voted for an appropriations bill before voting against it; and he often came off as dry, uninspiring, and patrician on the stump. But Kerry, as his past performance suggested, was a thoroughbred in the stretch, closing relentlessly on the frontrunner, just as his shrewd surrogates (themselves brought on board late in the game) had predicted.

It all started with the three nationally-televised debates, which Kerry won, in part, simply for showing up and acting like a rational human being. Having been painted by the Bush team as a cartoonish figure, Kerry benefited from significantly lowered expectations; as a result, his serviceable performances in the debates came off as dominating. Having effectively rebutted the president’s central attack, he began pushing back. It wasn’t easy for the angular Kerry to criticize a war that he had essentially voted for, but he succeeded in walking the tightrope, arguing that he, in contrast to the bumbling Bush, would neither have frayed relationships with the international community nor failed to have an effective exit strategy in Iraq.

Kerry was able to maintain his advantage on the domestic policy front as well. He hammered the president for losing jobs, underfunding education programs, providing giveaways to drug companies at the expense of America’s elderly, and handouts to Halliburton, in the form of no-bid contracts to reconstruct the Iraq that the president had just deconstructed. The message resonated with swing-state voters in [pick one or more: Ohio/Pennsylvania/Florida/etc.], who came out in record numbers to give Kerry his [pick one: narrow/wide] victory margin. He also held onto his base, thanks in part to the endorsement of Howard Dean and increasing liberal disenchantment with the isolated, hapless Ralph Nader.

There were surprises along the way, of course. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth wounded Kerry momentarily, transforming a perceived strength — his military service — into a questionable chapter in his personal history.

But ultimately this was John Kerry’s race to lose, and he did just enough to not lose it. The president’s fevered rhetoric couldn’t convince an electorate disenchanted with a sputtering economy and adventuresome foreign policy to give him another chance; the shrewd Kerry was able to drive home his message about a bungling administration robbing the poor to give to the rich at home and leading the nation into blind alleys abroad. He was direct and forceful in his rush to victory in the final weeks of the campaign, confounding critics of the long-windedness that he had displayed early on and, at the last minute, winning over the confused and the uncertain, who broke overwhelmingly to the senator.

The question that remains is whether Kerry can govern a nation divided between increasingly-rabid partisan camps — giving this reporter and others ample ammunition for unsupported suppositions and grave analyses in the months ahead.

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Brian Montopoli is a writer at CJR Daily.