John Kerry's Silent Spring

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A few weeks ago, the Bush campaign launched a negative television ad that many Democratic consultants thought was pretty clever. It featured ancient, goofy Keystone Kops footage and suggested, not too subtly, that John Kerry was pretty goofy too: he supported a 50¢-a-gal. gas tax. Leave aside the fact that this was not quite accurate—Kerry's support for the tax was fleeting, theoretical and a decade past—the ad was sharp, different-looking, sort of humorous. The consultants assumed it would cut through the info-smog of political-message mongering, that it would make Kerry seem laughably out of touch.

Did it? Perhaps a little. More people think that Kerry will raise their taxes than did a month ago. Kerry's "unfavorables" are higher than they were before the Bush campaign put $50 million worth of advertising on the air. But the larger dynamic of the race hasn't changed. It was pretty much neck and neck a month ago. It's very much neck and neck now. And you have to wonder about the impact of all those ads on the President: in a very serious year, he has allowed his candidacy to appear sarcastic and frivolous. In fact, most negative advertising seems sort of dumb and old-fashioned these days, especially when it's practiced in the crude, the-other-guy-will-eat-your-children manner favored by both the Bush campaign and liberal interest groups. "Bush has been running a 1988-model campaign," said a Kerry strategist, referring to the ton of sludge Bush the Elder successfully dumped on poor Michael Dukakis' head during that dreadful presidential year. "They assumed that if they dumped stuff on John Kerry's head, he'd collapse. He hasn't."

But Kerry isn't exactly thriving either. His campaign is experiencing something of a silent spring. Part of this is beyond his control and possibly beneficial to his cause: Iraq and the 9/11 commission have dominated the news and kept the President on the defensive. Another part has been tactical, intentional: Kerry's recent priorities have been fund raising (he brought in $13 million last week alone) and taking time to develop a careful strategy for the general-election campaign. "We're not going to allow George Bush or the press to dictate the pace of our campaign," an aide said. An advertising blitz will begin next week, and a series of substantive speeches has been launched. The last was on fiscal responsibility; the next will be about the "jobs and the industries of the future." But I suspect there's another reason for Kerry's decided lack of fizz since the primaries ended. This is just not a very fizzy candidacy.

There is an odd confusion of style and philosophy here. Bush is bold to the point of recklessness—a quality conservatives usually associate with liberalism—whereas Kerry is cautious to a fault, a stylistic reactionary. Most successful presidential campaigns sail into Washington on a gust of fresh talent. In 1992 Bill Clinton was surrounded by new faces, from his rowdy team of political consultants to the New Democrat policy wonks who produced his agenda. Kerry, however, is engulfed by the sort of people Howard Dean railed against: timid congressional Democratic staff members and some of the old Clinton crowd, less hungry now, less rowdy, too rutted in past successes to try anything new. There are precious few sharp young people in positions of responsibility and—very strange for a Democrat—no prominent blacks or Latinos in the inner circle either. Kerry's may be the most sclerotic presidential campaign since Bob Dole's.

The stodginess is compounded by the Senator's public performances. In an effort to seem positive, he has removed the "Bring It On" red meat from his stump speech and replaced it with Spam. It is not uncommon to see audiences leaving his fund-raising events in droves while he is still speaking. Often he'll talk about the need for a new style of campaigning, a "conversation" with the American people, and then he'll proceed to relaunder a list of Democratic nostrums ("Health care is a right, not a privilege") that were clichés when Dukakis slogged the trail. There is nothing conversational, or comforting, about his candidacy.

And so, an odd year. Polls say the public is very much engaged, but the combatants seem disengaged. Bush is Bush. Neither he nor his campaign will change much between now and November. His future is at the mercy of events in the world, particularly in Iraq. Kerry has a slightly more enviable position. The President's attempt to define him negatively has had only marginal success. My guess is that there are small but significant numbers of Bush supporters who are ready to jump ship—fiscal conservatives, military families, diplomatic traditionalists angry about the war. A vote for Kerry will not be easy for them; it will have to be earned. The Senator will have to prove that he is up to the presidency. That will require a largeness of spirit, a well-tempered candor and a political courage that he has not yet demonstrated.