Donald Lambro reports that key Democrats are advising John Kerry to focus on the economy and avoid discussions of foreign policy between now and November:
Democratic officials and strategists have urged Sen. John Kerry not to allow himself to be pulled into a debate over Iraq, the war on terrorism and his Vietnam experiences, and focus his attention on the economy and jobs in the general election….
Other Democrats say President Bush and his party would like nothing better than to keep the focus on the war on terrorism and Mr. Kerry’s defense record for the rest of the election, because polls show that is Mr. Bush’s strongest issue with voters.
“He needs to focus more on domestic issues. That’s where Bush is particularly vulnerable and where Kerry is particularly strong, and that is where swing and uncommitted votes are especially unhappy with Bush,” says Harold Ickes, a senior party strategist who was deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House.
“Kerry can’t ignore the commander in chief stuff, but that’s not where the election is going to be won or lost. I think he’s slipped a little in the last month, but the fundamentals are still very strong for the Democrats.”
Where to begin? First of all, Kerry wasn’t “pulled into” a “debate on his Vietnam experiences.” He reported for duty. I’ve never understood why Kerry decided to run as the Vietnam candidate, but he did. Implicit in the advice recounted by Lambro is the conclusion that this was a terrible idea.
Second, it is precisely the Iraq war and other foreign policy issues that motivate the Democratic Party’s base. The party’s problem is that its activists are in the minority on those issues.
Finally, the idea that the Democrats can safely de-emphasize the “commander in chief stuff” is ludicrous. September 11 happened. Every day, the news reminds us that the terrorists would like nothing better than to bring to the United States the same devastation they have visited on Russia, and more. The main reason why President Bush is pulling ahead in the polls is that when people focus on terrorism and security issues, they see Bush as strong and decisive, and Kerry as vacillating and possibly weak. Kerry can’t solve this problem by just changing the subject. If he can’t project himself as a trustworthy commander in chief, he’ll lose. Moreover, many American voters–I would hope most of them–are intelligent enough to understand that the dichotomy between security issues and economic issues is a false one. By far the most important thing a President can do to support the economy is to prevent terrorist attacks.
If the best Kerry can do on the central issue of our time is to try to change the subject, he’s in worse trouble than I thought.
UPDATE: Another of Kerry’s problems is that he lacks a coherent message on the economy. The truth is that the economy is doing well. And President Bush has a simple, clear message, which he repeats over and over: the economy has taken some hard hits, but his policies, especially the tax cuts, have contributed to the economy’s current strong performance. Kerry has no comparably strong or clear theme. He talks mostly about job losses, but the unemployment rate is low, and he offers no persuasive reasons why job creation would accelerate with him in the White House.
And Kerry’s incoherence on the stump is by no means limited to foreign policy. Here is how he tried to capitalize yesterday on the recent Medicare rate increase:
In Akron, Mr. Kerry told a blue-collar crowd that he would ”take the wood” to Mr. Bush in November, saying the administration had ignored the problems of working people and skyrocketing health care costs for four years.
“Let me ask you something: Who are they going to send the bill to?” he said of the Medicare rate increase. “Are they going to send it to Halliburton? Are they going to send it to Ken Lay and Enron? You bet they’re not; they’re going to send the bill to our senior citizens.”
That had to leave many in the audience saying, “Huh?” Granted, stump speeches are not held to high standards of logic. But a candidate does have to make some sense, and much of the time, Kerry doesn’t.