Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Kerry's strong hand

Attack the base, win the middle. That's the judo move called the "Sister Souljah", named after Clinton's brilliant denunciation of the Public Enemy flacky for her militant, white-bashing Afrocentrism at the 1992 NAACP convention. Not unlike the gangster ritual of shooting your buddy to prove your loyalty to the gang, the idea is that, by calling out the more extreme elements of your base, you can supposedly bolster your centrist bona fides and better position yourself as part of the American mainstream.

Norm Scheiber, one of the most astute pundits around, suggests that Kerry should Sister Souljah the Hollywood left for its Bush-bashing. Even as counterintuitive tactics go, this has got to be one of the most wack ideas put forth by a smart TNR writer. First of all, that kind of pointless triangulation would play right into the GOP's hands. In case you missed it, Whoopi, Chevy Chase, John Cougar Mellencamp and assorted other B-listers went on a Bush-bashing frenzy last week at a big NY fundraiser. The wingers started crying foul, and Bush/Cheney 04, right now an echo of the rudderless Bush/Quayle '92 campaign, has seized upon this event as an example of Kerry being "out of the mainstream", running on negativity and pessimism. Kerry's response to this non-issue has been perfect: ignore the desperate provocations and bash Bush some more on his vanished military service records, secret energy task force meetings, and national security lapses. Let the right wing fume about this for a couple of days, and it'll soon be forgotten.

So why shoot the guy who brought you to the dance? The Sister Souljah is a smart move...usually. But not this year. In '92, Clinton needed to prove that he's a different kind of Democrat, the kind who can resist "special interests" and unpopular lefty ideas like radical identity politics. Plus, Clinton only alienated a slither of his base, black militants, with his move. This year, Kerry doesn't need to prove his centrist credentials by bashing the left; he's blessed with the tremendous luck of having an unified, passionate base, giving him carte blanche to make centrist policy pronouncements and run on schmaltzy "heartland" themes while raising an unprecendented sum of money for him. And what's the cause of all this good fortune? Vociferous hatred of George W. Bush from Democratic partisans.

As everyone at TNR should know, Bush-hatred is a legitimate response to this administration's ideological blindness, capriciousness and incompetence. It's Bush-hatred, not Kerry-love, that's driving Democratic activism and fundraising. Democrats have let Kerry get away with not opposing the war, making conservative "values" pitches ("life begins at conception", John?), and even going easy on Bush-bashing (we know the 527s and Michael Moore will do the dirty work). Will Kerry have such an easy time if he starts denouncing these celebrities for expressing exactly what the Democratic rank-and-file feel (those 38% or so who "strongly disapprove" Bush's job performance in the polls)? Why risk angering the left by scapegoating them? After all, they've asked nothing except for Kerry to beat Bush. Plus, those precious few swing voters aren't paying attention anyway, so this does nothing to gain their votes.

So you risk the left's enthusiastic (rather than grumbling) support, while gaining absolutely nothing except maybe some props from The Note and The New Republic. Looks like a bad wager to me.

Good thing Kerry's been playing it smart. He's been laying low, running a vacuous campaign heavy on biography and feel-good pronouncements and now incorporating second-hand Edwardsian themes. As Ryan Lizza notes, the polls show that the "swing voters" -- a notorious apolitical bunch -- are already knocking on Kerry's door. They just don't happen to pay attention to horse race maneuvering in July. (Kerry will win them over with credible debate performances.)

The lay of the land favors the Democrats. Kerry's sitting on a lead, with Democratic convention, the 9/11 Commission report, the Plame indictments, and more Abu Ghraib fallout to come. To use one of my ever-annoying poker analogies, Kerry's holding pocket jacks to Bush's AQ, and nothing's hit on the flop. Bush still has a chance to pair up, but the odds are against him. Kerry just has to avoid being stupid. Like denouncing the kind of Bush-bashing practiced by his most energetic supporters.