Kerry Kicks Off

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If you were wondering why Sen. John Kerry’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has been so lame, a partial answer came on Tuesday: he wasn’t really campaigning!

All those months of stumping, money-raising, and image-testing were just a warm-up. He wasn’t, as you thought, running an ineffective campaign. He just wasn’t trying.

The senator from Massachusetts officially kicked off his candidacy only this week, and he did so against the backdrop of an aircraft carrier and American flags in South Carolina, keen to play up his Navy service in Vietnam and dubbing his campaign “The American Courage Tour.”

The subtext of Kerry’s chest-thumping coming-out party is, of course, this: the candidate who was once seen as the man to beat, has for months been taking a beating from Howard (who knew?) Dean, and he’s got to put new life into his campaign. And fast. (Contrary to what he’d have us believe, Kerry has been running a campaign, just a singularly bad one.) A recent poll gives Dean a 21-point lead over Kerry in New Hampshire, and the Boston Brahmin has struggled to counter the impression that he’s an out-of-touch blue-blood (not to mention weirdly into his hairdo). Hence the emphasis on his naval pedigree (which is not in doubt: Kerry is a decorated veteran), in pointed contrast to Dean, and, while we’re at it, Bush.

Kerry’s candidacy has been hobbled by what for some is a wishy-washy, ambiguous platform. Worse, for all his military cred, Kerry doesn’t come across as a guy with backbone. Or so says William Saletan of Slate, suggesting that Kerry just doesn’t seem tough enough to beat out Bush. At his campaign announcement, writes Saletan, Kerry’s pals from the Navy, eager to introduce him as a worthy candidate, were more successful in wooing the crowd than Kerry himself, not least because J.F.K. (that’s right) seems so uptight:

“The opening acts overshadow the main event. Alex Sanders, a 65-year-old bulldozer of a judge, flashes his wit and grit. Cleland lights up the crowd with zingers, plain talk, and more animation than Kerry can manage with four limbs. While Cleland works his magic, Kerry sits expressionless behind him, squinting and repeatedly touching various parts of his hair to make sure they’re in place. They’re fine, but Kerry seems terribly anxious that somewhere, somehow, a hair is out of place.”

Much of Kerry’s problem is superficial. He’s as stiff as a GI Joe. He’s infatuated with the 1960s. He keeps talking about ‘our generation’ to an electorate that is no longer of his generation. He speaks the language of the Kennedys, which now sounds flowery and phony. He adorns his prose with words like ‘lavish and ‘astonishing.’ He calls the audience ‘my fellow Americans.’ He tells them he’s ‘honored to join you in this endeavor.’ For the thousandth time, he begins a sentence with the pointless preface, ‘And I say to you today …’ At another point, he proclaims, ‘Let me put it plainly: If Americans aren’t working, America’s not working.’ This is what audiences always have to wade through to get at whatever it is Kerry is trying to say: Nuggets of nothing, wrapped in pretentious rhetoric, compounded by the pretense of plain speaking.”

The Washington Post‘s Jim VandeHei and Dan Balz pile on with their own explanation of what’s sinking Kerry’s battleship:

“[Kerry] has come under fire for sounding ambivalent on the Iraq war and for failing to connect with the antiwar, anti-Bush voters dominating the nominating process. He has struck many Democrats as aloof and indecisive, even as advisers sought to portray him as the only candidate with the stature and stamina to defeat President Bush.”

The whole debacle is evidence of Kerry’s “relying too heavily on a team of big-name strategists,” according to VandeHei and Balz. And Kerry apparently agrees with the Post’s assessment, according to the Associated Press:

“Kerry’s political free-fall has prompted a fresh round of finger-pointing in his deeply divided campaign and has the candidate considering changes, according to several campaign officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.”

On his campaign’s woes, Kerry was characteristically ambiguous. The Boston Herald has Kerry pondering whether to revamp his campaign staff:

“I never rule out the possibility at some point. But I’ve made no decisions about anything. I don’t have any plans right now. I’ve made no judgments at all.”

Say what? Kerry later put out a written statement to quell the controversy: ‘There will be no changes.'” So now we know. And now that Kerry is campaigning for real, we can start taking him seriously, right? Game on.


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