Three months ago, the long season of Presidential Primaries and Caucuses were finally coming to a close: we, of course, had long known by then just who President Bush's Democratic challenger was going to be and, at that time- knowing that I would have to write up a post-Convention period/pre-General Election campaign Commentary such as this one come Labor Day (the traditional "official" start of the Fall campaign)- I was already thinking about the upcoming Presidential Election and what I might have to write as a preview of the Fall Campaign come early September.
At the time, the polls were virtually dead even between Bush and Kerry and this remained the case even after Senator Kerry had chosen Senator Edwards as his running mate while, at around that same time, it became certain (despite all sorts of loose talk and baser rumor) that Vice President Cheney would remain on the Republican ticket. Back then, I knew that- this very day- I would be writing how, despite the closeness in the polls, this Presidential Election is- in the end- not going to be a very close one and I even alluded to my views in a couple responses of mine to 'vox Populi', noting therein that I would be writing about this when the time comes.
And, indeed, it is not going to be close election, for reasons which I already knew back in June I would be giving in this very piece.
The main reason the 2004 Presidential Election is not going to be close is, simply, that so-called "second term" Presidential Elections- meaning, elections in which the incumbent is seeking a second four-year term, win or lose- are rarely close ("close" here being defined as a less than 5 percent margin in both the Popular Vote and the Electoral College). The last "second term" election to be close, by my definition, was when Democrat Woodrow Wilson was seeking a second term back in 1916 and barely eaked out a victory over Republican Charles Evans Hughes. In the vast majority of "second term" elections, a consensus develops at some point during the campaign to either "throw the bum out" or "stay the course" and it was my feeling back in June, as it remains today in September, that this election is going to be no execption.
Now, that consensus- in either direction- might develop very early on: a recent good example of this is from back in 1984. Twenty years ago, the election was pretty much over even before the echoes from Democratic presidential nominee Walter "Fritz" Mondale's Acceptance Speech had fully died away that Summer- if not even sooner! There was an obvious consensus within the electorate to keep President Ronald Reagan in office for another four years- a consensus that, yes, wobbled slightly with Reagan's poor, even dottering, performance in the first of two presidential debates in the Fall but which came back to the incumbent thanks to his rousing perfomance in Debate # 2. Former Vice President Mondale simply never had a chance!
On the other hand, the consensus might come quite late: the 1980 election which first elected Ronald Reagan is a perfect example of this alternative scenario. In his bid for a second term, then-President Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan were virtually neck-and-neck going into the final week or so before the election-- then, in the waning days of the campaign, Reagan quickly pulled it out to the point where he ended up with nearly a double digit percentage margin in the Popular Vote and an Electoral Vote landslide. What had happened in 1980? Simply, a healthy chunk of the electorate not strongly committed to either candidate had finally decided that the incumbent Carter simply had to go.
So, I already knew- some three months ago- that I would have to now discuss all this.
I also figured that I might even have to rather strongly defend my prediction that this election would not be so close, as most political pundits back then were talking about "red States" and "blue States" and which "red's might become "blue" and which "blue"s might become "red", etc., etc. ad infinitum ad nauseam, a discussion that continued throughout the Summer and during the National Conventions therein. I myself expected that- coming out of the Summer, after both Major Parties had already held their Conventions- the polls would still be relatively "flat" with very little margin between the two presidential candidates- in other words, no real change from what I was seeing as I myself voted in my own State's Primaries on 8 June. I fully expected Kerry/Edwards to get a bump in the polls, albeit not a significant one, out of the Democratic Convention, followed by a similar relatively small bounce for Bush/Cheney coming out of the GOP Convention and going into Labor Day weekend.
But this is not exactly what has actually happened.
First of all, Kerry/Edwards did not seem to gain any real big push in momentum coming out of their Convention, while Bush/Cheney appears to have gotten a somewhat larger bump up in the polls from their Convention.
What's going on here?
What happened is that Senator Kerry, while he and his supporters did do quite well at their Convention, evidently settled for just well enough; whereas, President Bush and his supporters did far better at the GOP fete- especially on the National Security issues I have been discussing in my Commentaries all Summer: the War on Terror, Homeland Security and, in particular, Iraq. Kerry's failure to talk honestly to the American electorate about the all too real possibility that America's more recalcitrant European allies- nations such as France and Germany, as well as Russia and (since the Madrid train bombings of 3/11) Spain- will either 1. not offer all that much aid and assistance re: the rebuilding/stabilizing of Iraq during even a Kerry Administration or 2. will only offer such aid and assistance on terms which no American President could then so easily accept. Kerry did not at all well address the problem that, if- indeed- the United States America is not so well respected abroad as he claims because of American military intervention in Iraq, even a President Kerry will have one hell of a time getting support from these countries and, in the end, might well have to give in to restrictions on U.S. actions that the American People will not at all accept: put another way, Senator Kerry hasn't really explained just how he is going to then be able to overcome the central problem of leadership- to the effect that 'if you're going to lead, you'd better look behind you to make sure someone is following'.
It is especially this latter notion which, I think, is currently tripping up the Kerry/Edwards campaign, for there are many among the moderate voters whose votes will determine this election who do not support the military situation in Iraq and, as a result, are concerned that a.) the President has overstated the link between Iraq and the broader War on Terror and b.) having to keep American forces in Iraq as long as we have is not only straining our military resources in general, forcing us to use the National Guard and Reserves far more than we originally expected and, above all, harming our ability- even with the help of nations who do not support us re: Iraq but are willing to support us re: the War on Terror- to deal effectively with the remnants of al-Qa'eda and the Taliban still in Afghanistan and the nearby frontier reaches of Pakistan.
These are voters who might otherwise tend to lean toward Kerry but are not so vehemently either pro-Kerry or anti-Bush, voters who also appear to be concerned that, despite all the soothing talk mixed with forceful rhetoric, John Kerry might- in the end- not really be the guy to, in the end, best handle this situation: that, since George W. Bush was the one who did send the troops into Iraq, it is not only his responsiblity to fix the problems and get our troops back home, but the President may well be the only one to effectively get them back home without turning Iraq into an even bigger version of once-Talibanic Afghanistan- that is, a cesspool of terrorists, only that much closer to vulnerable targets in the Middle East. Senator Kerry did not really address these concerns at his Convention, preferring to walk a thin line within his own Party (what I have already called the '[Jesse] Jacksonesque' [bring the troops back home NOW] vs. '[Joe] Liebermanian' [Saddam Hussein WAS a real threat to the USofA] positions on Iraq)- let alone the greater American electorate- and not at all well dealing with the "hard calls" President Bush himself was so willing to address and defend at his Convention.
I know what we have to do in Iraq, Senator Kerry said at his Convention in Boston, opining that We need a President who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden... that's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home. The problem with this statement are the questions it leaves: ' what if you, as President, can't bring the more reluctant of our usual allies to our side?', 'are you then going to bring our troops home anyway?- what would this leave behind in an unstable- or only partially stable- Iraq?' These are some of the questions those who were still on the fence early last month were already asking of John Kerry. Here is the reality, Kerry claimed: that won't happen until we have a President who restores America's respect and leadership so we don't have to go it alone in the world and we need to rebuild our alliances so we can get the terrorists before they get us. But, in his own Acceptance Speech in New York, President Bush noted Our allies also know the historic importance of our work: about 40 nations stand beside us in Afghanistan and some 30 in Iraq... Again, my opponent takes a different approach: in the midst of war, he has called American allies a "coalition of the coerced and the bribed". That would be nations like Great Britain, Poland, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Denmark, El Salvador, Australia and others- allies that deserve the respect of all Americans not the scorn of a politician. I respect every soldier, from every country, who serves beside us in the hard work of History: America is grateful and America will not forget- the people we have freed won't forget either. 'Therefore', asks the moderate voter who has not yet decided for whom to vote, 'are we not now fighting completely alone?-- aren't we already getting the terrorists before they get us?'
As President, I will fight a smarter, more effective, war on terror , Kerry promised at his Party's Convention. We will deploy every tool in our arsenal: our economic as well as our military might, our principles as well as our firepower. In these dangerous days, there is a right way and a wrong way to be strong. Strength is more than tough words... We need to make America once again a beacon in the world, we need to be looked up to- not just feared... and then, with confidence and determination, we will be able to tell the terrorists: "you will lose and we will win- the future doesn't belong to Fear, it belongs to Freedom" But Bush has answered Kerry with the following he said at the incumbent's Convention: I believe in the transformational power of Liberty: the wisest use of American strength is to advance Freedom. As the citizens of Afghanistan and Iraq seize the moment, their example will send a message of hope throughout a vital region: Palestinians will hear the message that Democracy and Reform are within their reach and so is peace with our good friend Israel, young women across the Middle East will hear the message that their day of equality and justice is coming, young men will hear the message that national progress and dignity are found in Liberty- not Tyranny and Terror. Reformers and political prisoners and exiles will hear the message that their dream of Freedom cannot be denied forever. And as Freedom advances- heart by heart and nation by nation- America will be more secure and the world more peaceful... I believe that America is called to lead the cause of Freedom in a new Century- I believe that millions in the Middle East plead in silence for their Liberty. I believe that, given the chance, they will embrace the most honorable form of government ever devised by man- I believe all these things because Freedom is not America's gift to the world, it is the Almighty God's gift to every man and woman in this world.
Thus, the fence-sitter in the center- the very voter both Bush/Cheney and Kerry/Edwards are battling for- is left to ask 'so, are we now not using our principles along with our firepower?-- aren't we already saying "the future doesn't belong to Fear, it belongs to Freedom"?' These questions cannot be answered very effectively with angry, where not also cynical, observations and complaints from hard core pro-Kerry activists, where not also more leftish malcontents, about the President's sincerity- and it is these questions which provide a lot of the reason Senator Kerry's bid for the Presidency is in such political difficulty right now.
What can now possibly save Kerry's "bacon"? The answer is the upcoming Presidential Debates which, while they have always loomed large on the horizon as one of the keys to victory in this Election, now loom even larger for the Bay Stater as the key to his Election. These Debates are largely going to be the only real way, as well as the last chance, through which Senator Kerry and the Democrats can get back on track and perhaps even seize the momentum which, so clearly, now belongs to the President and his Party.
Thus, I am not here at all suggesting that John Kerry is currently "dead man walking"- that Election 2004 is already all but over: yet, in a sense, the Massachusetts Senator has to now pretty much start all over from scratch; in many ways, it's as if there never even was a Democratic Convention in Boston, that neither Kerry and his supporters made any of those speeches on his candidacy's behalf I documented back in my late July Commentaries. The question of monent is: has the worm already turned?- that is, is the consensus already beginning to form among the "bell curve" of the electorate holding the balance of electoral power that President Bush should, in fact, be re-elected?
We, of course, simply cannot, right now, know if such a consensus to "stay the course" is already well-hardening; however, if it is so hardening, then Kerry/Edwards can do little in this Fall campaign to pull this one out. Assuming, instead and for sake of this argument, that the bounce President Bush is getting this first weekend after his Party's Convention is not the beginnings of a clear consensus within the center to keep him in office for another four years, there is still little doubt that Senator Kerry has to right his ship and then better tack into the wind because the Democratic candidate is once again behind and, indeed, further behind than he ever has been since it first became apparent that this was going to be a Kerry vs. Bush race.
Some six months ago, as it became so readily apparent that John Kerry was emerging as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and the Republicans began to turn their sights on him by questioning Kerry's abilities to well deal with issues involving the War on Terror, Homeland Security and Iraq, the Massachusetts Senator responded by saying he would welcome a debate with President Bush on National Security. "Bring-- it-- on!", he cried, time and time again.
Well, he'd better welcome it still-- because that debate is coming, and soon-- and it is a debate that will ultimately well determine Senator Kerry's fate this coming 2 November!