Monday, September 20, 2004

Kerry stepping up his game

Look, I was worried, too. But the hand-wringing among Democrats for the last two weeks was a little much. Yeah, Kerry made some missteps, but the sky hasn't fallen. And the widespread panic only made liberals look more wimpy. But at least with all the alarms ringing Kerry suddenly got on his game. He's been sharp for the last week, and today's Iraq speech offers the best, most concise (at least for Kerry) and most complete rationale he's given for why we need a change. It's not the vacuous, focus-group-tested nonsense he served up in earlier months. Kerry identified all the specific problems in Iraq and traced it to Bush's consistently awful judgment and decisions. He's making the case he needed to make. And it's now even possible to decipher Kerry's own position!

What I'm excited about is that he's staking his chips on Iraq, as he should. This is the big issue -- the most disastrous decision made by a president in the last twenty years -- and you have to tackle it head on. The pollsters and appeasers who've been urging him to run away from Iraq and change the subject to domestic issues are the same folks who got the Dems routed the 2002 mid-terms. Kerry's turning the boat back and rushing straight at the enemy. Take it out on the big issues. And if Kerry can't hang the mismanagement of Iraq as the noose around Bush's neck, he doesn't deserve to win.

So far Kerry's proven to be an awful front-runner. In the primaries, he started off as the favorite only to completely flame out before the first votes were cast. As late as December 2003 Kerry was a dead man campaigning, but he stormed back by betting all his chips in Iowa and running with renewed vigor.

The last couple of months, Kerry's been running up the middle and playing prevent defense with a 3 point lead and a quarter to go. He was way too cautious, appealing way too early to "persuadable" swing voters who by their very definition sway with the wind. These swing voters will say in the polls and in focus groups that they want a "positive" campaign, but the fact is *they aren't paying attention*. If they end up voting, it will be on the basis of "general impressions" which is created by the campaign (and the media) framing the debate in your favor.

For a better understanding of the campaign so far and where it has to go, let's bring back our much duplicated but never tired poker analogy!

In poker, you've got four general types of players. One is the "calling station", the loose/passive player who plays a lot of hands and calls most bets. This is a very poor player. Second is the "maniac", a loose/aggressive player who bluffs a lot and will raise on bad hands. This is also a poor player, but a more dangerous one. Third is the "rock." This is a highly predictable tight/passive player who calls only on very good hands and raises only on sure winners. These guys know what's a good hand and play the percentages. So while they win some, they're not very dangerous -- they're way too predictable because they just play the cards. The fourth is the more successful poker style: tight yet aggressive. These players play both the cards and the players. They fold most poor hands but will raise in situations with mediocre hands if they get a good read.

Kerry's naturally a mediocre poker player, someone with "rock" instincts. Hyper-cautious and largely passive, he voted (in a terrible calculated gamble) to authorize the president to use force in Iraq largely to position himself as a hawk. His cautiousness has come back to bite him, but in a table full of loose players (Dean, Clark), a tight, cautious game tends to win, and so Kerry won the early rounds.

It started off okay for Kerry when he took the same cautious game to the general campaign. Initially, he won some hands but then he quickly began to sit on his chips. Bush, who's been dealt pretty bad cards, has been taking hands by being aggressive, using strong bets to force Kerry to lay down better hands. Kerry was playing his cards; Bush was playing Kerry. By the end of the RNC, an over-privileged, drug-addled cheerleading, draft-dodging pussy became, by general perception, a tougher, more macho he-man than a guy who actually fought courageously for both his country and his convictions.

Bush has a game plan and he's executed it with ruthless efficiency. Kerry's a flip-flopper who will waver in the fight on terror, he says over and over and over and over again. Kerry won't protect the country, blah blah blah. Since the campaignstarted Kerry assumed a passive, reactive stance: "Bush says he's optimistic? Well, I'm the optimistic one. Bush is stronger? I'm just as strong." Instead of reframing the debate, to define leadership as a combination of strength, judgment and competence, he simply tried to out-flank Bush on Bush's terms. That's one big mistake. By repeatedly calling Bush's raises, Kerry let the Rethugs take complete control. Compounding that passivity, he neutered the DNC Convention to appease the "swing voters" and pundits who decry "Bush-bashing." He de-fanged his most lethal surrogates, when Kerry needed the spotlight to pin the country's wrong direction on Bush himself. By calling passively instead of raising on his strong hands -- by pandering to the apathetic, ignorant, and fickle instead of taking control and defining the election for those groups -- Kerry lost his advantage.

As the chips dwindled away, the Democrats began playing on "tilt", displaying "maniac" and "calling station" tendencies by betting on everything like the National Guard stuff that led to today's embarrassing memo-gate mea culpa. Too cautious with the lead, then too reckless when behind -- sure signs of a losing player.

Bush panders as well, but his campaign and supporters have seized the debate and framed the agenda. The GOPers are disciplined and unflappable, sticking to their gameplan even when they were down. What would Kerry do on Iraq, they asked? Why does Kerry hold so many positions? With Iraq going to shit, it's Bush, not Kerry, who needed to answer questions. This was Bush's war all the way, and he bore all responsibility. But Bush kept Kerry on the defensive, raising and re-raising until Kerry folded. Now, finally, with a short stack, Kerry decided to raise on his second pair and let Bush make the tough call.

Kerry's making better plays now. If he keeps up his style (and if he keeps being dealt better cards that Bush), he'll be alright. By the most reliable measures, he's only about three points down right now. He's can close the gap in the next two weeks before the debates. By finally playing to win rather than not-to-lose, Kerry's back on track to prevail.

Next on Kerry's hit list should be: That August 2001 "Al Qaeda Poised to Attack U.S." memo and Bush's non-response.