Beware Flannel-Mouth Disease!

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The 2004 Democratic primary campaign has produced one of the more depressing political phenomena in memory: the rise of the citizen pundit. With Howard Dean gone from the race, the last traces of passion—and, I fear, conviction—have been leached from the electorate. Instead of voters, we have handicappers. Ask a civilian why she likes Kerry or Edwards, and more often than not, you get dime-store Capital Gang: "Kerry can match up with Bush on national security," or "Edwards can win in the South." This is a form of pragmatism, I suppose. Democrats are desperate to beat George W. Bush. But it is also fresh evidence of television's ability to lobotomize democracy. With serious issues of war and prosperity at stake, horse-race punditry seems particularly vacant right now—and particularly useless in a year when we professional blabbers have demonstrated yet again the essential idiocy of political prognostication.

The punditry virus has even infected the candidates. John Edwards' sharpest attack on John Kerry in this campaign was a matter of commentary, not substance. It came in the Wisconsin debate, after Kerry offered not one but two gaseous responses to a simple question: Given your support for the Iraq-war resolution, "do you feel any degree of responsibility for the war and its costs and its casualties?" A small taste of Kerry's response: "The President had the authority to do what he was going to do without the vote of the United States Congress ... That's why we have a War Powers Act. What we did was vote with one voice of the United States Congress for a process ..." And on and on. "That's the longest answer I ever heard to a yes-or-no question," Edwards said. "The answer to your question is ‘Of course.' We all accept responsibility for what we did." And then Edwards wandered into the same pabulum swamp as Kerry, insisting that the effort in Iraq needs to be internationalized (as if the President weren't desperately trying to do just that). He too avoided the real thrust of the question: Do you believe the war was a good idea? This would seem a matter of some interest for Democrats, far more important than whether a war hero or a millworker's son is better positioned to beat George Bush. But punditry is less strenuous, and less dangerous, than clarifying a crucial issue. In this case, it may be the most important question of the campaign: Do you believe the President was right or wrong to go to war? No long answers, please.

Unfortunately, without Dean, the Democratic primaries are lapsing into a synthetic and unsatisfying beauty pageant. This is mostly John Edwards' fault. If he were really running for President, he would be demanding specificity, and forcing creativity, from John Kerry on Iraq and lots of other issues. He would be taking risks, trying to break the entropy of the campaign. A truly sharp John Edwards might say something like, "John Kerry, the more I look at these Bush deficits, the more I think that you and I should scale back some of these promises we've made. Here's my list. What's yours?"

But Edwards is not a particularly sharp candidate. He is a slick speaker but lacks the crackle and candor of Dean's plain talk. Indeed, Edwards gives the same speech, platitude for platitude, every time. He doesn't talk about foreign policy, and he rarely answers questions from the audience. At his maiden New York primary speech, at Columbia University last week, Edwards was confronted by AIDS protesters who wanted him to address their issue and by local reporters curious as to why he hadn't mentioned Iraq. His bland responses—that AIDS was a test of "moral responsibility" and that Iraq was "a very important issue"—disappointed both groups. "He didn't speak with any detail at all," said Kim Sue, one of the protesters. "I think I'll have to vote for Kerry."

There are quasi-plausible reasons for Edwards' odd unwillingness to confront Kerry. He has defined himself as Mr. Sunshine, and since his future in politics is probably brighter than his present, he doesn't want to sully the white suit. He may also be pulling his punches because he wants to be Vice President. That would be foolish: his prospects aren't as obvious as most citizen pundits think. Kerry will surely want a running mate eager to eviscerate the opposition, particularly in the debate against Vice President Cheney (or, failing that, a Vice President who will bring his home state along—and Dick Gephardt has a better chance of doing both than Edwards). Edwards' fluffy passivity is not a very good audition if the job description is attack dog.

But there may be another, more sensitive reason that Edwards is restraining himself. The real case against Kerry is a matter of character, not substance. Edwards hinted at it with his "longest answer" line: not only does Kerry have a flannel-mouthed inability to utter a simple sentence, but his orotundities also serve to reinforce the notion that the Senator from Massachusetts is a patrician stiff, too smug to speak in a manner decipherable by ordinary Americans. In fairness, John Kerry has been as sick as a dog these past few weeks and duller than he might ordinarily be—but there was a real sense last week that Kerry, assuming victory, had lapsed into flabby aristocratic entitlement, a persona he inhabits when not in mortal combat.

Bush family operatives have done effective demolition jobs on two Democratic presidential candidates, Michael Dukakis and Al Gore. The anti-Dukakis campaign was pure ideology. He was a Massachusetts liberal, a "card-carrying member of the A.C.L.U." He was soft on crime; he opposed the Pledge of Allegiance. The anti-Gore campaign was pure character. The Vice President was a phony who couldn't even figure out what to wear—remember earth tones? He was a liar, an exaggerator—remember how he invented the Internet? He was "uncomfortable in his skin." The anti-Kerry campaign will be a little bit of both, but the real emotional traction will involve character more than ideology. Oh, Kerry will be called a Massachusetts liberal; assorted Kerry votes and sound bites will be summoned to prove that he is a spendthrift pacifist. But "liberal" is an ancient epithet whose power has waned in recent years, and Kerry's votes to limit defense spending will be forgiven if he seems solid, moderate and strong—as he has through the primary season. Which is why the real energy will be spent proving that Kerry isn't solid or strong, that he is, in fact, effete and unreliable. His tendency to surround an issue and talk it to death using fancy language will be Exhibit A. (George W. Bush will play at sounding like Clint Eastwood to drive home the contrast.) As for Exhibit B, the Republican National Committee gave a sneak preview last week, e-mailing to reporters a quote from Teresa Heinz Kerry about her husband: "You know, I say he's like a good wine. You know, it takes time to mature, and then it gets really good and you can sip it. I think he's at that stage now."

Why, you might ask, would the Republicans distribute something so innocuous? Because it implies the Heinz Kerrys are wine drinkers. They probably eat quiche too. Early in the campaign, Kerry committed the abomination of ordering Swiss cheese instead of Cheez Whiz for his Philly cheesesteak—that's almost as grievous as asking for a "splash" of coffee, as Bush the Elder once did. (Bush the Younger has been careful to let us know that he favors bologna sandwiches.) Furthermore, John Kerry speaks fluent French. It is no accident that a White House staffer once said, "He looks French." The Heinz Kerrys hang out on Nantucket and in Sun Valley, Idaho. They don't own a ranch or cut scrub with a chainsaw. He often shows up at Davos. He went to a fancy private school in Switzerland. He and Teresa met at a global-warming conference, for God's sake! He wears pastel Hermès ties—a pink one at his Wisconsin victory celebration. And this guy calls himself an American!

Kerry will fight back, of course, and he has some serious weaponry, as the controversy over George W. Bush's National Guard service has shown. The Senator's military service, and his cavalcade of veterans, has real resonance with average folks, especially those whose sons and daughters are serving in Iraq. In Wisconsin he won the blue-collar vote—as he has throughout his career. His aides look forward to a game of "Who's the Real Phony?" with the President, who is, after all, a graduate of Yale, and Harvard, a member of Skull and Bones, a lifetime beneficiary of connections from a family far more affluent than Kerry's. And all this from a fellow who would have you believe that he's a plain ole country boy from Texas. Unlike Dukakis or Gore, Kerry is not averse to playing rough. He is not a particularly inspiring or compelling candidate, but he will be a very tough one—and toughness is one of those intangibles that pundits, amateur or professional, find exceedingly hard to judge.