Is Mr. Flip-Flop Already ‘Out’ ?

Some John Kerry supporters see a "subtle class war theme" that they believe the Kerry campaign is invoking. Sitting at the margins of mainstream politics and in the center of intellectual and academic debates there are those Americans who hope to revive an ideological battle; they frame the campaign in ideological terms. One of Kerry’s supporter recently argued that "not just for this election, but that for a reemergence of a dominant progressive center-left and the vanquishing of the rising right, a wedge needs to be driven between the often anti-establishment cultural right and the crypto-fascist corporatists. They are currently joined at the hip by dominionism, neo-con foreign policy and gospel of wealth theology." Makes the intellectual adrenaline run but not voters towards John Kerry! But as the Kerry supporter he, himself, subsequently acknowledged, "these threads are not strong enough to keep the opposition under well-applied pressure."

The liberals are rallying website support for Kerry. Framing it in a recent publication "Misstating the State of the Union" a website called the Media Matters Action Network (MMAN) in ideological terms claims that "it dissects this conservative misinformation campaign, while unmasking the dark ideological agenda and rank dishonesty behind all the cable TV and radio "hot air." The book, maintains this website, reveals a simple truth that the media too often obscures: By every objective measure, Bill Clinton’s presidency was immeasurably better for the United States than George W Bush’s presidency. Yet, MMAN maintains that, "Yet, an army of conservative pundits have conspired to lie to the public about both Clinton’s and Bush’s records, denying the proven success of progressive policies and leadership, while shamelessly covering up abject conservative failures."

Similarly, other attacking themes put forward by Kerry’s ‘thinking’ supporters do not necessarily translate into political ammunition against the incumbent president. Attacking themes are in abundance; Bush doesn’t represent true Republican values, but only benefits the large corporations and very rich people, not the rank and file; the Iraq war has been financed by borrowing and the main benefits of success will accrue to major corporations, the Iraq war is securing US oil supplies and increasing corporate profit and not increasing security for Americans or reducing terrorism, it is not gaining currency; the Bush Administration has mislead the Republican Party into pursuit of US strategic goals in the most costly and disruptive way; with a staggering fiscal deficit Bush has violated an important tenet of Republicanism -” fiscal responsibility. Their veracity aside, these themes have not ‘caught on.’

Meanwhile, the attack on Kerry from his opponents cuts more ice. For example, in call-in radio programs the reiterative anti-Kerry themes are many "if you have a teenage daughter and you want her to go and get an abortion without your knowing, vote for Kerry; if you want to take the name of God from the pledge of allegiance; Kerry is insulting our allies, undermining our soldiers, Kerry has a 30 year record of wanting it both ways…people don’t know what he stands for". And on go the attacks.

Flamboyance, directness and clarity combined with some charisma make for an effective political communicator. However, Kerry the man whose "legislative achievements" as The Washington Post reports "in such areas as acid-rain control, fisheries protection and foreign policy have resulted largely from patient behind-the-scenes diplomacy with members of both parties, and with little public controversy" does not seem to have what it takes to be an effective political communicator.

Compared to Bush, Kerry is intellectually rigorous and sound, yet may sound boring to the average simple-minded American voter. Clearly his three dozen domestic policy councils, two dozen foreign policy groups, dozens of consultants, and many other casual advisers tell him, help him develop a sophisticated understanding of issues. Not, however, better communication techniques. Bush by contrast seems to be doing well by his cowboy Texan style communication.

Continuity has not been a virtue with Kerry. His mind moves in the ‘greys’, as his changing views and actions illustrate; his Vietnam experience was first engagement and then a strong critique. And as Bush would say through his voting record on tax cut, health cut, social security cuts etc. He has been changing even his election management teams. He’s on a third one now. Maybe these are strengths of a reflective mind but Kerry needed to strategize better as a communicator for his electioneering campaign does. His ‘Mr. flip-flop’ image is growing. This hurts him politically. Can he lead in these times of great uncertainty, the voters must ask.

Kerry, with all his intellectual strength, has been on the defensive. In public, he speaks tentatively. He explains more and asserts less. Good teaching technique but a bad rule to follow in election campaigns. He comes across as tentative. As he defends himself against Bush’s attack that about his past actions and present claims on health care, tax cuts, social security benefits and abortion not adding up, Kerry has already a ‘nailed down’ candidate. If your opponent is forcing you to clarify, he has psychologically nailed you down. Kerry has been nailed down. His Vietnam engagement is being turned into a liability for him. For the average American, Kerry must come across as the tentative dissenter. Hear him carefully. On abortion, on the Iraq war, on defense! spending he isn’t saying that is much different from the Bush message. Kerry’s criticism of the war has been muted. Unable to really stick his neck out on the Iraq war, he falls between two stools. As such, Kerry is unlikely to attract fence sitters.

Arguing the absence of any real difference between the two candidates on the Iraq war, Eileen McNamara, the Globe Columnist wrote in her October 6 column ‘Soldiering through Iraq’, "This is not a reassuring election cycle to be the mother of two teenage sons -” or an adolescent daughter, for that matter. The specter of a military draft hangs over this presidential campaign like smoke above a burning Iraqi oil field." McNamara maintained that the two candidates have the same views on Iraq. President Bush, she wrote "is promising to ”stay the course" in Iraq, keeping troops there until he can declare "mission accomplished" more convincingly than he did on that aircraft carrier 17 months ago. He has been extending the tours of unhappy reservists to do it." On the! other hand, Senator John F Kerry McNamara recalled "is vowing to be ‘steadfast and resolved,’ keeping boots on the ground for another four years. ‘I’m not talking about leaving,’ the Democratic presidential nominee said during his debate with the president last week. ‘I’m talking about winning." The anguished columnist ended by asking "this mother wants to know how and with whose sons and daughters on the ground?

Essentially, Kerry is unable to tell the voters what is the real difference between his and Bush’s policy on Iraq. He merely says ‘he would have done better in winning the peace.’ He doesn’t say how. The critics of war here argue that it may take the exit of US forces from Iraq to ‘win the peace.’

For Kerry the worst on the war question is yet to come. Sinclair Broadcasting Group, is planning to broadcast the anti-Kerry film, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," which according to the Los Angeles Times "features former POWs accusing Kerry -” a decorated Navy veteran turned war protester -” of worsening their ordeal by prolonging the war." The Sinclair Group plans to show this in its 62 television stations, 14 of which are in the key political swing states of Ohio, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The film maker former Washington Times reporter and official in the Bush administration, Carlton Sherwood, tells viewers on the film’s website: "Intended or not, Lt. Kerry painted a depraved portrait of! Vietnam veterans, literally creating the images of those who served in combat as deranged, drug-addicted psychopaths, baby killers" that has endured for 30 years.

In contrast with his straightforward, simple and direct communicator Kerry is a long-winded communicator. His message is overloaded. Too much ‘if’, ‘buts’ and ‘maybes’. Good for scholarship for teaching for an informed discourse. Not for electioneering communication in which the ‘straight and simple’ makes for the most piercing pitch. In a country where rule of law exists, peoples’ basic material needs are generally met and the popular media doesn’t burden you with the mess your country’s foreign policy creates, even a minimal amount of self-critique can become mentally cumbersome. It can make the average voter walk away. In an increasingly chaotic and turbulent world, in much of which the US voters know their own country is involved, they want to hear a reassuring message. That all is well, that all will be well, that force is necessary to fight ‘evil,’ that the US government is doing just that. Bush says just this. He’s on a winning ticket. Barring a major upset.