The Comeback Prez
By WILLIAM SAFIRE September 6, 2004
— All that sustained thumb-sucking you heard about this
polarized electorate, with only a tiny sliver of undecideds, has just
ended with a loud pop. Polls that showed
The Labor Day Bush trend (which could, by the nature of swing
voting, be reversible) has Democratic politicians between
panic. As usual, they are crying foul at a veterans group's
Kerry's blunder of
running on his Vietnam war and anti-war record. As
insiders shake up the staff, outsiders pre-emptively lay the basis for
post-election excuses, positioning themselves for embittered
Longtime Democratic pollsters have been calling journalists to note that the sophisticated "internals" of the current polling were even more gloomy for the Kerry campaign, showing a two-to-one advantage for the president on the paramount issue of the war. Retiring Senator Bob Graham, whose failure to dissociate himself from Pat Buchanan's anti-Israel screed on "Meet the Press" yesterday will not help Democrats in Florida, complains that Kerry's campaign is "still a little out of focus. "
Other Democratic pols had harsher advice: no more Mr. Nice Guy. Harold Ickes, the rejected Clintonite who has been directing millions of dollars into supposedly independent TV spots savaging the president, cries that Kerry should "throw caution to the wind. " Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania advised that Kerry "has got to start smacking back. "
The gibes from his own side caused
Kerry to overreact. Instead of
moving away from the Vietnam issue, which has been a real toothache for
his campaign, he bit down on it. Uncharacteristically, he took
road, overtly contrasting his war duty with Dick Cheney's draft
That flailing-out was done more in
anger than in calculation.
Millions of Americans of
draft age in the 1960's who are voters today
were deferred from service by virtue of student status or fatherhood.
They do not appreciate having their deferment attributed to lack of
patriotism. Now Kerry
has unnecessarily upset a lot of non-veteran
What can swing the pendulum back? What are the presently ascendant Republicans worried about?
Not another new Kerry position on the
war in Iraq; he has learned
that issue is a loser and no "I shall go to Baghdad" stunt would sway
the undecideds. Despite the wishes of both Democrats and
however, Iraqi insurgents
presumably think it is in their interest to
increase American casualties in October - thereby to
unequivocal "whatever it takes" policy. Nobody can be certain how a
terrorist Tet offensive would affect U. S. politics.
We can be certain that bad economic
news, if it comes, will hurt
Bush. When the recovery stuttered this summer and Kerry's
fortunes rose, we had a
brief "Kerry market" - stocks declined sharply
at the prospect of dividend and capital-gains tax increases,
along with Bush's recent comeback. If the figures near election time
are not good, a worried market will drop as Kerry's stock rises,
accentuating investor gloom. Public pessimism cheers the
And then there are the debates,
with all their gaffe potential. In
that big moment of the swing voter lies the main hope of the Kerry
supporters after their botched Boston convention, its mistaken theme
highlighted by the successful G. O. P. affair.
Yet Kerryites cannot hold out hope publicly that their man will out-debate Bush and thereby reverse fortunes lest they raise expectations of a Kerry triumph; in that case, September's much-needed Democratic morale booster would enable Bush to do "better than expected" in October's debates, vitiating any victory. (It's not easy being behind. )
Finally, bouncing Bushies are properly concerned with peaking too soon. Because the media revel in a horse race right down to the wire, any reduction of the present Bush surge will be hailed with a jubilant "Here comes Kerry!"
But the Republicans coming out of
their New York success - with a
personally popular candidate, a much deeper surrogate bench, the
momentum of an upbeat message and a clearly centrist appeal - have good
reasons to have faith in the November decision of today's legion of