Politics & Policy

Kerry’S Dilemmas

The challenger has a lot of catching up to do.

Having now sat through both the Republican and Democratic conventions, I have come to two conclusions.

First, the order of the conventions should be changed. Historically, it has been considered an advantage for a political party to hold its presidential convention first. Up until recent years, parties usually did not know who their candidate would be until the convention, so they needed extra time for him to organize a campaign and introduce himself to the American people. For this reason, the party not holding the White House always holds its convention first in order to give it a leg up.

However, in this day and age, I believe that going first has become more of a handicap than an advantage. To begin with, we no longer really use conventions to choose candidates. They are already chosen by the primaries long before convention season begins in July. Consequently, the main role of a convention today is to promote a candidate and get in a few licks at the opponent. Hence, conventions are now little more than heavily scripted infomercials.

Furthermore, under the campaign finance laws, certain restrictions on fundraising and expenditures take effect the moment a candidate is officially chosen. For this reason, John Kerry briefly flirted with the idea of not formally accepting the Democratic nomination at his convention, in order to delay the effective date of these restrictions. He ended up not doing so only because of warnings from the television networks that they would not cover the Democratic convention unless it culminated in a genuine nomination.

This being the case, I think it is now an advantage to go last. Not only does the in-party candidate avoid restrictions for several weeks that apply to his opponent, but he gets the opportunity to make his case to the American people closer to Election Day. Thus, if he has a successful convention, as George W. Bush did, the glow may better translate into votes.

If the principle of giving the out-party a bit of an advantage in the timing of conventions still holds, we should seriously consider reversing their order — requiring the in-party to go first and allowing the out-party to get the last licks. Also, the campaign finance laws should be amended so that any restrictions do not begin until both candidates have been formally nominated.

My second post-convention conclusion is that both parties should avoid nominating candidates from one-party states. I think a key reason why Kerry floundered in August is that he really has no experience running against real Republicans — a problem Michael Dukakis faced as well. I think that in his mind, to a large extent, the real fight was always about getting the Democratic nomination — that was always the only fight that mattered in Massachusetts, a state thoroughly dominated by the Democratic party.

In Massachusetts, winning the Democratic nomination for any office is tantamount to victory, since the Republican party is virtually nonexistent. Sure, Republicans have elected a couple of governors in recent years, but it’s going to be a very long time before the party is really competitive in the state.

And because the Republican party is so weak in Massachusetts, their candidates in the state tend not to be very good. Any Republican with serious political ambitions moves elsewhere or contents himself with appointed positions in Washington (ask White House chief of staff Andrew Card, a Massachusetts native). Those who actually run for office in that state are often sacrificial lambs that put up only token opposition to the Democrat.

Finally, Republicans in Massachusetts tend to be pretty liberal by comparison to Republicans elsewhere. This means that they often have little disagreement with their Democratic opponents on the issues. Given the choice between a Democrat and a pale imitation, people will usually go with the Democrat.

All this means that John Kerry has never run a campaign against a vigorous, aggressive, principled, well-financed, politically astute Republican in his life. He is used to always holding the high cards, with a fawning liberal press at his beck and call. That’s one reason why he was caught flat-footed by the Swift boat veterans. He was depending on his pals in the liberal media to repudiate them or ignore them, both of which they did. But members of the mainstream media were caught flat-footed, too, when the Internet and talk-radio pundits put questions about Kerry’s Vietnam record onto the national stage and forced them to do some reporting.

Similar questions were raised about George W. Bush in 2000. He was used to dealing with Texas Democrats, people who tend to be more conservative than Massachusetts Republicans. But Bush was able to overcome this and perhaps Kerry will, too. Time, however, is running out and many Democrats are very nervous. Unless John Kerry can get some momentum back before the World Series, he is going to be in very serious political trouble.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.

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