Kerry's losing because he keeps punching the pillow

Decades from now, teachers of political science and campaign management will not have to look any further than the John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOvernight Energy: Farmers say EPA reneged on ethanol deal | EPA scrubs senators' quotes from controversial ethanol announcement | Perry unsure if he'll comply with subpoena | John Kerry criticizes lack of climate talk at debate John Kerry calls out lack of climate questions at debate Democrats' debate divisions open the race to new (or old) faces MORE campaign of 2004 to understand all the fundamental mistakes a candidate can make. The strategy, tactics, issues, and execution of the Kerry campaign are so flawed as to offer a model of what not to do.

Begin with Kerry’s decision to focus on the war in Iraq as his key issue. In the most recent ABC News poll, voters say, 53-38, that President Bush is better than Kerry at handling the problems in Iraq. So why would the Massachusetts Democrat choose to focus his case on an area where Bush has a lead? Why not go after issues where the Democrat has an innate advantage instead? And Bush’s lead on Iraq is nothing compared to his almost 40-point lead on fighting terror.

Winston Churchill once compared engaging Japan in a land war in Asia to “going into the water to fight the shark,” yet that is precisely what Kerry is doing by engaging Bush on his strongest suit.

Since most of Kerry’s support comes from his supposed superiority on domestic issues, his base is sharply divided on the war in Iraq, with slightly more than half taking an antiwar position while about one-third back the engagement and think it is integral to the war on terror (Scott Rasmussen’s data). By coming down on the left side of the issue, Kerry will drive his voters into Bush’s arms.

Kerry has been maneuvered into this no-win positioning by the pressure from Bush attacking him as weak and vacillating. The windsurfing ad, devastatingly effective, forces Kerry to take strong positions just for the sake of showing he is not weak.

But he doesn’t have to take the wrong ones! He could use domestic policy to show his strength. By charging into the middle of the Iraq war, predicating his campaign on it, he is making an error of almost unbelievable proportions.

But beyond the issue of being pro-war or antiwar, Kerry is committed to showing the war in Iraq as a failure. The pessimism and negativity that comes to color his campaign as he attacks Bush on his handling of Iraq can only hurt him further.

By criticizing the president on his conduct of a war, one has almost implicitly to be criticizing the troops who are waging it. It was only after years and years of obvious chaos in Vietnam that opposition to that conflict became politically acceptable.

Kerry cannot break with a president in his conduct of a war without being seen as negative to the men and women who are waging it.

Bush can frame his differences with Kerry as optimism versus pessimism, a can-do attitude versus a can’t-do approach. Kerry will come off on the wrong side of the issue and won’t look good in the process.

Finally, Kerry is making a fundamental error in basing his campaign on an attack on Bush. You can’t attack a sitting president and gain any more votes than you had when you started. If the day-to-day experience of living under the Bush
administration has not led someone to a negative view of his incumbency, an ad or a speech is not about to do it.

The relationship of voters to their president is so intimate and his exposure so thorough that it is almost impossible to persuade people who like him to turn on him.

It’s like punching a pillow. If a president opens the campaign with negatives that make reelection unlikely, as did President Carter and the first President Bush, one can defeat an incumbent by attacking him. But if his ratings are not that bad, a challenger can only hope to prevail by providing an alternative vision of positives that overcome the incumbent.

Since Kerry is doing everything wrong right now, one is tempted to believe that he will eventually run out of mistakes to make and will stumble, by default if nothing else, onto the right strategy.

It is possible that after losing the debates, having already lost the conventions, he will finally figure out how to win and the race will tighten. But, then again, never overestimate the capacity of these folks to learn from experience.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonState cites 38 people for violations in Clinton email review Trump campaign to hold rallies in Mississippi, Kentucky Biden struggles to reverse fall MORE’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.