Tuesday, March 2, 2004

The L-Word

Joe Conason on why the Republicans will have a problem with Dukakising Kerry:

For many months, White House surrogates such as RNC chairman Ed Gillespie have been performing experiments on Kerry’s image, trying to paint him as a pandering hypocrite, a special-interests candidate, a rich elitist; and when none of those cut deep enough, they will inevitably work their way back to “Massachusetts liberal,” the formulation that helped the president’s father defeat Michael Dukakis in 1988.

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For the Republicans, the problem with all of the alternative labels is that they can be turned back so effectively on the president. Rich elitist? Despite Bush’s folksy style, his blatant coddling of the wealthiest bracket of taxpayers makes that a dangerous epithet. Special interest? The services rendered by the Bush administration to the energy industry and nearly every other corporate sector, while collecting millions from their lobbyists and executives, makes that cliché sound hollow, too. Projecting a candidate’s own sins onto his opponent can be a perilous strategy. So “liberal” will undoubtedly serve as the Republican default attack. Slapping Kerry with the traditional label offers the added value of motivating the Republican base, from which party strategists hear scary grumbling about Bush spending and immigration policies. Having changed the subject in recent days by endorsing a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, the president and his supporters can be expected to emphasize Kerry’s votes on abortion, gay rights, taxes and the death penalty, the culture war issues that help Republicans fire up the GOP hardcore.

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Unlike other Democratic candidates who have suffered that fate, Kerry has certain qualities that may serve to protect him. Beyond exploiting his status as a Vietnam veteran, he has learned that the most defensible posture is aggressive rather than cringing. He doesn’t hesitate to talk about sports, hunting, motorcycles – all of which serves to bolster the image he is making for himself as someone willing to “fight.” Surrounded by veterans and firefighters, he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the left-wing wimp.

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Unlike the passive Dukakis, Kerry decided early on to strike back hard whenever he is hit. That healthy attitude reflects the broader Democratic mood. The Republicans will soon start spending millions to negatively define him as a “Massachusetts liberal.” When they do, Kerry will have a chance to show why those are really fighting words.