Thu, Sep 30, 2004 - Page 9 News List

Kerry needs a narrative - fast

Millions in the US dislike President George W. Bush intensely, and many millions more would be open to persuasion by a plausible challenger -- so why do so many think John Kerry will lose?

By Linda Colley  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON


I have been back in the US for just two weeks, but it is already evident that people here expect Senator John Kerry to lose. My Democrat friends don't want to believe it, but they know it none the less. To be sure, the opinion polls are in flux. At the end of last week, Gallup had President George W. Bush leading by 13 percentage points; the Pew Research Center by only one point. But such results suggest uncertainty about the likely scale of Kerry's defeat, scarcely a burgeoning grassroots conviction that the White House is his to win.

Surveys of the swing states tell the same sad story. Bush is currently ahead in Missouri by seven points, in New Hampshire by nine points, and in Arizona by 11 points. Everyday now, pro-Democrat columnists in The New York Times bombard Kerry with advice, and assure each other, as if in comfort, that he is always at his best with his back to the wall.

Some of the reasons why his campaign has conspicuously not caught fire -- despite the war going badly and the sluggishness of the US economy -- are clear enough. The Democrats' electoral strategy has often seemed introspective and at times almost perversely maladroit.

Thus the Republicans gambled profitably and staged their convention in liberal but post-Sept. 11 New York. The Democrats played safe and went for Boston, and also played too into the hands of those wanting to represent them as quintessentially east coast and out of touch. The Republicans have nurtured their natural supporters while also reaching out.

Hence Bush's advocacy of an amendment to the constitution forbidding same-sex marriage. This was never going to be passed, but it reassured the Christian Right that he was one of them.

The Democrats, though, often seem strangely negligent of their core voters. Kerry has been almost silent during the campaign on abortion rights, for instance, and it is Bush, not he, who is currently enjoying a surge in female support.

But the problem, crucially, is Kerry himself. He is intelligent, experienced, thoughtful, brave and very rich -- but (thus far) an unconvincing candidate. When caught off guard on camera, Bush's eyes can look vacant or perplexed, but his body is usually at ease.

In the same position, Kerry often appears contorted and worried, as well he might. And because he lacks physical ease and charisma, and his voice does not soar, even his most searching speeches have only a limited impact.

As the historian Richard Hofstadter observed, there is a long, disreputable tradition of anti-intellectualism in American politics, and Bush's studiously plain, sometimes stumbling language resonates with this very successfully. Kerry's speaking style, by contrast, is clever enough to alienate, without being so powerful as to compel attention anyway.

This matters because historically it has always been difficult for challengers to defeat US presidents who have completed a full term and who are seeking another. On the very few occasions that the challenger has won, the incumbent has usually been visibly a failure in some way while the challenger has been manifestly first class and formidable.

Thus Woodrow Wilson was able to make short work of the hapless Taft in 1912; Franklin Roosevelt demolished Hoover in 1932, before going on to win the presidency a record three times more; and a youthful Bill Clinton trounced George Bush in 1992 by making him look stiff and old by comparison.

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