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Commentary | JONATHAN CHAIT

Cement Sack, Yes, but With Concrete Ideas

Kerry's inept, but don't rule him out yet.

September 17, 2004|JONATHAN CHAIT | Jonathan Chait is a senior editor at the New Republic. His weekly column for The Times begins today.

If John Kerry loses the election, and quite possibly even if he wins, the main thing people will remember about his campaign is how utterly bizarre it was that a major party nomination could have been captured by a man so staggeringly devoid of political talent.

The first job of a candidate is to win the election, a task to which Kerry seems spectacularly ill suited. This is not to say he won't beat President Bush, only that Kerry's contribution to a potential Kerry victory would be similar to the anchor's contribution to an America's Cup championship. Lest you think I'm exaggerating, some of Kerry's strongest supporters have explicitly likened him to ballast.

"I don't care if John Kerry is a sack of cement," former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower said in June. "We're going to carry him to victory."

At his very best, Kerry is capable of adequately delivering a prepared speech. But when speaking off the cuff, he has an inexplicable penchant to play into his opponents' hands. Bush implies (outrageously) that Kerry wants to go soft on terrorists? Kerry responds that he wants a "more sensitive war on terror." Bush portrays Kerry as an out-of-touch, Francophile elitist? Kerry tells GQ, "I love sports. French skiers." Bush paints Kerry as indecisive? Kerry volunteers that at restaurants, "You know when they give you the menu, I'm always struggling, what do you want?" It's as if he has somehow internalized his opponents' attacks upon him.

Nor can Kerry articulate his policies. Earlier this summer I listened as a friendly questioner at a Missouri event asked Kerry to describe his healthcare plan -- not a trick question. He proceeded to blather on for some 10 minutes, in increasingly abstract terms, to the point where I had no idea what he was talking about. And I've written about healthcare and understand his plan, or at least I thought I did before he started explaining it.

If Kerry does not stage a comeback (and he well might -- I lend great credence to the cement sack strategy), the natural next step is for people to rationalize his failure. If he can't run a campaign, the argument goes, he would never have been able to run the White House.

That sounds reasonable enough unless you consider the fact that George W. Bush is a highly competent campaigner but a flaming disaster of a president. And it is exactly those things that make him so ruthlessly effective on the stump -- centralized authority, Comintern-like party discipline, total disregard for the truth -- that have created a hermetically sealed petri dish in which bad policies come to life and are carried out unchallenged.

Bush's staffers, unlike Kerry's, don't leak despairing quotes to the press when their candidate drops in the polls. But they don't seem to raise questions behind closed doors either. When Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill suggested in late 2003 that maybe this deficit thing was sort of, you know, a problem, he was fired.

The apotheosis of the administration's rewarding of loyalty over competence came when it essentially turned Iraq over to the College Republicans. (No, seriously. The White House solicited staff for the Coalition Provisional Authority from a list of entry-level applicants at the Heritage Foundation.)

Having everybody do what Karl Rove says or they'll never work in this town again works a lot more smoothly than having a bunch of smart people with different points of view try to hash things out over pizza at 3 a.m., but it doesn't necessarily lead to the wisest policy decisions.

If you drew a schematic map of Kerry's campaign staff, it would resemble Afghanistan, with chieftains warring over patches of turf and little central authority to rein them in.

Could a president function this way? Actually, yes. In 1993, the Clinton White House was riven by internal strife as it tried to put together an economic program. When Bob Woodward luridly chronicled the backbiting, pundits tut-tutted about the disarray. But the policies they came up with worked pretty well.

The difference between Kerry and Bill Clinton is that the latter could easily explain his policies to the public. But a president who struggles to enact decent policies is surely better than one who easily enacts awful policies. And though Kerry's ineptitude makes a victory less likely, it also would make it all the sweeter for those itching to see the current administration convincingly repudiated. I could tell Republicans: You know how bad Bush's record was? He lost his reelection campaign to that guy.

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