The Rockaway Irregular
The big story, after the convention, was the president’s “bounce.” Unlike John Kerry, who barely budged after the Democratic tribal confab up in Boston, Bush actually showed a snappy gain in his poll numbers, both toward the end of the convention and in post convention polling . . . a gain that showed up consistently, in fact, across a variety of different samples.
Democratic spokespersons were beside themselves and John Kerry, who had earlier “broken with tradition” to speak at a veterans’ group during the Republican event in New York, “broke with tradition” again and rushed out to make a speech at midnight just as the Republican convention was shutting its doors. Rather than waiting until after Labor Day to rejoin the attack, the traditional campaign re-entry point, John Kerry had decided to strike preemptively.
Historically presidential candidates, of course, have remained discreetly on the sidelines while their opponents did their convention thing. It’s what Bush did during July’s Democratic convention in deference to Kerry and the Democrats. But Senator Kerry clearly felt that the time had come to ignore convention and crash the Republican party. He delivered a scathing midnight attack on Bush and his Republican supporters, telling his listeners that, once again, his patriotism had been impugned by those who hadn’t served during the Vietnam War as he had. (Where does he get these ideas? I listened to most of the Republican convention speakers and never once did I hear anyone question the Senator’s love of country.)
Shortly after his pre-Labor Day preemptive strike, the word came out that Kerry was again shaking up his campaign team, this time by adding Clinton staffers. Meanwhile other Democratic leaders were carping that Kerry’s crew had been caught flatfooted by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth while Kerry had somehow failed to define himself at his convention and was now less aggressive in his campaigning than he needs to be. Iowa Democratic Senator Tom Harkin was quoted in the New York Times as saying Kerry needs to go back on the “attack” and that if you defended yourself, it just made it look like there was something you were worried about defending. The implication? Never look back, never explain, just go for your opponent’s jugular. (Wasn’t that what they had in mind when they were telling us about the alleged “dirty tricks” of the mythic “Republican attack machine”?)
From his hospital room, as he awaited emergency heart surgery, former president Bill Clinton was reported to have called Kerry and told him to get back to issues he can win on (“it’s the economy, stupid”) instead of trying to compete with Bush on national security or to coast to victory on his four-month combat stint in Vietnam’s coastal waters. In the face of the damage to Kerry’s credibility from the Swift Boat Vets this clearly looked like good advice.
And, while the Kerryites were once more re-tooling their campaign (just as they did back when Howard Dean had them on the ropes during the primaries), media pundits were busy opining about the Bush bounce. Some worked hard to show that it wasn’t as real as it looked, while others noted, hopefully, that it was just too soon to consider it a significant turn in the president’s electoral prospects. But one thing was already painfully obvious. The Democrats and their media allies were taken by surprise by the president’s reversal of fortune and not quite sure how to deal with it.
A lot of reasons were trotted out including the notion that the Republicans had been more manipulative and “on message” at their convention than the Democrats had been at theirs.
Some even acknowledged that making John Kerry’s four-month combat stint in a divisive war the focal point of the Democrats’ presentation in Boston, while ignoring his legislative career, might have been just a little misguided. But for the most part, the pundits seemed at a loss. Well, allow me to offer this modest explanation.
The reason George Bush got a bounce out of the Republican convention, while John Kerry did not get the same from his, has little to do with the media savvy of the two parties.
Indeed, both put on a wonderful show, highlighting what they hoped would be winning messages for their candidates. No, the reason lies in the messages themselves.
Kerry offers little more than an endless critique of the Bush administration, focusing on whatever it is the president and his team last did or said. If you want to know what Kerry will say next, all you have to do is know what the Bush administration is doing or saying now.
Of course, Senator Kerry and his allies will oppose it, even if they formerly supported it!
But most Americans can see through this kind of opportunism when it stumbles clumsily into the light. And that, I submit, is just what the Republican convention has finally managed to do. It has shone a little light on the terms of the present debate, highlighting the Kerry message of hollow negativity and resentment against Bush.
The media is already overwhelmingly anti-Bush. And so Kerry’s convention, which monopolized the public’s attention during its week in the Boston spotlight, really brought nothing new to the informational table beyond the notion that Bush is always wrong, all the time, in everything.
On the other hand, Bush had little left to lose and quite a bit to gain by the opportunity the New York convention handed him to take and hold the spotlight for a week.
More to the point, Americans got to hear and watch the Bush ladies (even the cheerily goofy twins). And they heard Bush himself.
No self-important tin soldier salutes, for Bush. Instead we got a straight talking guy, painfully aware of his own foibles as he self-effacingly joked about his penchant for misspeaking, even while reminding us of the reason we’re now doing what we’re doing in the world: those attacks by terrorists out to destroy us.
So Kerry’s ball never bounced because the media had actually bounced it all out in the months leading up to the convention.
Hearing Kerry and company unmediated was no different from the ordinary news coverage that has routinely characterized this election cycle.
Same message, different venue. But Bush finally got direct access to the living rooms of his fellow citizens through his convention in New York. And what Americans heard and saw, unmediated by the talking heads of the national media, at last got through.
Americans managed to recall, if only for the moment, what they have been facing since September 11th, 2001 and why Bush, as president, has done the things he’s done.