Selling uncertainty

April 20, 2004|By Spencer Rumsey

INTELLIGENCE IS emerging as the decisive issue in the presidential race. Not so much the handling of "intel" in the war on Iraq, but the intellectual agility to draw a different conclusion from a new set of facts. In other words, the ability to change one's mind.

It could be a quality of good leadership, especially when the country is facing a crisis and the old ways of thinking only worsen it. But to Republican strategists for President Bush, it's "flip-flopping" and a sign of weakness. And they're banking on some key traits in American political thought that the pejorative will stick, and take Democrat John Kerry down with it.

Mr. Kerry has an uphill battle. Even after the testimony by former White House counterterrorism chief Richard A. Clarke at the 9/11 commission hearings, polls showed that Mr. Bush's support had held steady while Mr. Kerry's had declined as the Republicans' negative definition of his character took hold.

In the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania, the Keystone Poll once had Mr. Kerry narrowly leading Mr. Bush, 47 percent to 46 percent. But recently, Mr. Kerry's support there slipped to 40 percent while the president's held steady at 46 percent.

"A majority of Americans find President Bush's `certainty' about the decisions he's made and the direction he's headed appealing," Michael Dimock, research director of the Pew Research Center, told me. "It's an interesting test for Senator Kerry's ability to say it's one thing to be consistent and it's another thing to have blinders on. A lot of Americans feel discomfort with the idea of being open to change."

Mr. Bush says that Mr. Kerry has been in Washington for so long that he's managed to take both sides of every issue. Mr. Kerry retorts that Mr. Bush has been on the wrong side of each one. Clearly, given Mr. Bush's support, more voters are willing to give the president the benefit of the doubt. Not so the challenger.

The junior senator from Massachusetts, observes Mr. Dimock, is "not making a good case for a politician who's thoughtful and flexible. It's definitely the tougher sell. It's easier to sell certainty."

As Mr. Bush explained himself in a 2001 trip to Italy, "I know what I believe and I believe what I believe is right."

Of course, just a few weeks ago, millions of people around the world were in the streets protesting our president's beliefs. A recent Pew poll showed far-ranging negative attitudes toward Mr. Bush in other nations.

At home, depending on what poll is cited, more than half the country loves the man. It can make you think he can do no wrong.

But what if he is wrong? What if he is profoundly mistaken? What if his administration, so smug, so unified in the projection of certainty, is the worst example of hubris in modern times? For as the Greeks know, after hubris comes destruction.

Can Mr. Kerry convince enough voters that the track we've been on is not working and it's time to switch? According to a New York Times/CBS News poll, nearly six out of 10 registered voters think that Mr. Kerry "said what he wanted people to hear, rather than what he believed." That's a paradox that must drive his advisers to distraction. If he can't get voters to think about what he's saying, what he believes won't matter.

Who can forget perpetual Democratic nominee Adlai Stevenson's famous rejoinder to a woman who told him that he had the support of "all thinking people"? "That's not enough, madam" Mr. Stevenson said. "We need a majority."

Europeans, Mr. Dimock notes, have "more appreciation for subtlety" in their countries' policies and their leaders than do Americans. It's rather easy for us to tune out the complexity of the world until it comes crashing into our consciousness.

Nobody doubts Mr. Kerry's intelligence. You could picture him at home in Emerson's Boston discussing evolution - just as easily as you could picture Mr. Bush passing judgment at the Scopes monkey trial.

We revere a presidential polymath like Thomas Jefferson to this day. But when a smart man like Jimmy Carter retired to his study to sift through the vagaries, we reviled him.

Maybe Mr. Kerry should borrow a page from Teddy Roosevelt, no slouch as a thinker, and take his gunboat out of mothballs and charge up the Mississippi. Rather than being the gloomy Gus warning of debt, deficit and decline, he may need to remind those uncertain Americans who need prodding that in the face of danger, this soldier unflinchingly did his duty in a Massachusetts minute.

To win the hearts and minds of undecided voters, action speaks louder than words.

Spencer Rumsey is an assistant opinion section editor at Newsday, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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