Kerry's Disappearing Act

While Bush uses attack ads to his advantage, Kerry is retreating rather than responding

Parroting an attack all contemporary Republican candidates deploy against their Democratic opponents—and that worked to great effect four years ago—President Bush says that voters shouldn’t trust Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass.

For once, George W. Bush may be right.

Kerry kite-surfed the mystical wave “Electability” to the Democratic presidential prize—persuading jittery Deaniacs, and Washington-based party wiseguys, that an elite Massachusetts liberal (but an elite Massachusetts liberal with medals!) would be the strongest candidate against the most sophisticated, most impressively well-constructed GOP campaign in American history.

For Democratic primary voters—whose prescient sense of electability led to the famously successful McGovern, Mondale and Dukakis nominations—the Kerry pitch worked.

The chamomile-sipping tough guy won the nomination, but without winning people’s hearts. This was always an arranged marriage—between the desperate senator looking for an angle and the desperate Democrats looking for a winner. And like most arranged marriages, this one’s not going very well.

Yes, it’s not going very well despite a new Newsweek poll, out today, that shows a week of horrible news on Iraq taking its toll: Bush dropped, and is now at a statistical tie with Kerry. Shifting our eyes away from the horserace (which, by the way, has shown Bush ahead four out of the last five weeks), we can see that deeper changes have affected the electorate.

According to last week’s CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, 36 percent of voters now view Kerry unfavorably (up from 26 percent five weeks ago), and the number who find him “too liberal” jumped from 29 percent to 41 percent. Newsweek also found that, for the first time, a majority of voters believes Kerry will raise their taxes.

Why have millions of voters—a majority of whom think America is on the wrong track—turned tough on the Candidate of Change? Because in the face of a very expected Republican attack campaign, Kerry quickly, clearly, aggressively…disappeared from television.

Which brings us back to the question of trust.

Kerry ran ads in Iowa and New Hampshire that said “the only way we’re going to beat George Bush is with John Kerry’s leadership and experience.” But he got a lot more explicit than that. Kerry looked into the camera and made a pledge: “I promise to take the fight to George Bush every single day.”

But since becoming the all-but-official nominee on March 2, Kerry has broken his promise. As the negative ads began, Kerry has done little more than receive the fight from George Bush every single day.

According to newly disclosed Federal Election Commission reports, the Bush campaign has spent almost $40 million in a single month, across 18 battleground states, spreading three negative messages about Kerry: First, that he will raise taxes. Second, that he will weaken America’s war on terror. Third, that he flip-flops on the issues.

Kerry’s television response? A sparsely broadcast, though enormously heartening, no-he-won’t on the first. And absolute silence on the second and third. The candidate who promised a relentless fight has thus far failed to broadcast any alternative to Bush’s attacks. Yes, Moveon.org and The Media Fund—pro-Democratic groups airing anti-Bush commercials—serve a valuable purpose. But by law, they are forbidden from coordinating with the Kerry campaign and seem unable to directly challenge Bush’s offensive.

Michael Dukakis proved the point: Ignoring an attack sends the public a powerful message—that the attack is true.

Abandoning the promise that got him nominated, a passive and cocky John Kerry is getting defined by George Bush. A recent New York Times/CBS News poll shows that six out of ten voters now thinks Kerry only says what people want to hear.

I wonder how many Democratic primary voters feel the same way.

Brian M. Goldsmith ’05 is a government concentrator in Lowell House.