Kerry finds himself hardscrabbling out of an awful August

Ross Mackenzie
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Posted: Sep 09, 2004 12:00 AM

Since John Kerry's nomination for President, he has taken a bath in the polls. August was awful for him and thus far September is worse.

Things began to head south for Kerry at the convention, when he made his service in Vietnam his principal theme. Soon thereafter Swift Boat Veterans for Truth came along, combined with the best-selling book "Unfit for Command," disputing some of Kerry's claims about his Vietnam service - and raising questions about his trustworthiness and judgment. At first Kerry did not respond; then he responded poorly, helping the Swiftees make their case. What's more, the Swiftees are keeping on. They're not going away.

As Ross Perot used to say, think about it.

Here's Kerry, (1) maybe having embellished his war record, (2) departing Vietnam early to become an altar boy of Teddy Kennedy (fresh from his heroism at Chappaquiddick), (3) joining the likes of Jane Fonda and other screamers on the ramparts, (4) launching his political career with remarks to Congress alleging war crimes on the part of his government and fellow servicemen - and then (5) going on to use Vietnam as the centerpiece of his campaign for president in 2004.

Talk about unbright: Kerry doesn't get it. Clearly he hadn't gotten it an hour after President Bush completed his acceptance speech in New York. There was Kerry - at a midnight rally in Springfield, Ohio - in an oddly rambling attack on Messrs. Bush and Cheney and blithering yet again about a 30-year-old war divisive then and divisive now.

The polls found a post-convention bounce for Bush of 4 to 11 points - giving Bush the biggest lead of either candidate since March.

Kerry called Bill Clinton - now, because of heart surgery, out of commission for Democratic campaigning until at least October. Clinton is the only successful Democratic presidential candidate since 1976. Presumably he told Kerry some of these things. . .

Cool it about Vietnam; that war is over. Don't demonize the president; generally the voters don't like it. You may have thought the campaign was a referendum on Bush, but it's really a comparison of Bush to Kerry - and you have to make a persuasive case as to why Kerry is preferable to the incumbent. Move to the middle; far more American voters style themselves conservatives than left-wingers. Oh, and yes - if you want some of my former aides, here are their phone numbers; your Kennedy recruits obviously aren't cutting it.

If that was Clinton's advice to Kerry, there's a problem: It's largely contrary to Kerry's instincts and ideology. The man is a liberal, with a Senate voting record more left-wing than even his mentor Teddy; he picked an almost equally far-out trial lawyer for a running-mate.

Move to the middle? That's tough for a leftist ideologue - one who believes. It's why Kerry has so much difficulty apologizing for those war-crimes charges before Congress in 1971 (he hasn't yet been able to bring himself to do so). It's why Kerry's phrase three days ago about Iraq - the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time - partially repeats a Kennedy phrase and identically repeats a Howard Dean phrase during the primaries when Kerry campaigned saying Dean was wrong about Iraq.

If Kerry is having difficulty honing his message and finding his campaign voice, it is because he is conflicted between what he believes and what the moderates on his staff - such as they are - are telling him to say. It is the problem Kerry has had throughout his political career: the disconnect between his ideology and what the voters beyond Massachusetts want to hear. It is why he has spoken and voted on so many sides of so many key questions - Iraq being Exhibit A.

So since talking to Clinton, Kerry has realigned his staff again, tried to redirect his campaign, tried to revise his message. On Iraq and the economy, it must not be easy: They are President Bush's strongest issues. How hard it must be to argue that unemployment is too high, given that at 5.4 percent the unemployment rate is identical to the rate in 1988 when Bush I was elected and to 1996 when Clinton was re-elected.

Kerry has taken to talking again about the evils of "outsourcing." He says the W in Bush's name stands for "wrong . . . wrong choices, wrong priorities, wrong direction for our country." He adds: Bush and his Vice President Cheney "have had four years and they've taken us backward." He terms Bush "hypocritical" on the subject of trial lawyers. To Cheney's comment that the election of Kerry-Edwards might make another terrorist attack on America more likely, Sen. (and trial lawyer) Edwards termed the comment "un-American."

During the primaries, Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman warned - to no avail - that that his party was at risk of returning to its pre-Clinton leftism. Kerry and Edwards represent well what the national Democrats have become.

That leftism explains why Kerry, especially, has such trouble selling himself as the on-message moderate he is not. It explains why Democratic Sen. Zell Miller, responding to friends suggesting he might have used more humor during his crackerjack keynote speech at the Republican Convention, said the condition of the Democratic Party is nothing to laugh about. And it explains why Kerry is encountering, now, such hardscrabbling in the polls.