A winning slogan

September 22, 2004|By Cody Harris

SEN. JOHN KERRY, after sustaining a month of blistering attacks and declining poll numbers, finally is getting down to business.

He is reshuffling his staff, bringing aboard veterans from Bill Clinton's communications team and adopting a more stridently anti-Bush tone. These changes have brought a palpable sense of relief to many Democrats, but Mr. Kerry is not out of the woods yet. With the first presidential debate a week away, he still needs an overarching message that weaves his laundry list of policies and criticisms into something with emotional impact.

His previous efforts have fallen short. In June, he rolled out the Langston Hughes-inspired slogan "Let America be America again," but that was quickly scuttled. At the Democratic convention, Mr. Kerry unveiled "Stronger at home, respected around the world," which came close to presenting a unifying theme but fell flat.

Since then, he has traveled the country with a list of ideas and initiatives - from gas prices to jobs to health care - with little to tie them all together. In contrast, President Bush's focus is more straightforward: He says he will keep America safe and strong, period.

Mr. Kerry's response so far has been to "take the gloves off" and go after Mr. Bush's record. But when he does, he should level attacks that will stick. That means Mr. Kerry must stop trying to persuade voters not to elect Mr. Bush and start persuading them not to re-elect him. There is a huge difference between the two.

Mr. Bush's fuzzy Texas Air National Guard service and other "youthful indiscretions" were aired in 2000. Re-airing dirty laundry that had minimal impact four years ago is not going to score Mr. Kerry points today. Every minute he spends talking about events that happened 30 years ago is a lost opportunity to talk about the past four years and, more important, the next four.

Mr. Kerry's message should be an act of political jujitsu that uses Mr. Bush's strongest suits against him. Specifically, Mr. Kerry needs a message that turns events in Iraq and in the war on terror against Mr. Bush, no matter what happens.

Going negative in the final weeks may excite base Democrats, but it is no substitute for a coherent, emotionally resonant message. Moreover, attacking Mr. Bush relentlessly will not deliver the swing votes Mr. Kerry needs to win in November. While it is absolutely necessary to focus attention squarely on Mr. Bush's record, Mr. Kerry must do so in a way that brings voters in rather than alienates them.

To do this, Mr. Kerry simply needs to make it clear to voters that Mr. Bush's priorities, admirable or not, are targeted at improving the lives of citizens who live thousands of miles away in Iraq. He needs to remind voters that Mr. Bush has spent billions of their tax dollars to rebuild infrastructure, repair roads and bridges and set up schools and hospitals in Iraq while their American counterparts crumble.

Mr. Bush has spent time and money securing borders, performing security patrols and protecting the homeland of Iraq while, according to his own administration's warnings, we remain vulnerable here at home. In essence, Mr. Kerry should attempt to convince voters that he and Mr. Bush are effectively running for two different offices: Mr. Kerry for president of the United States, Mr. Bush for president of Iraq.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Kerry occasionally will point out that Mr. Bush's unwavering focus on Iraq has let other threats fall off the radar, such as North Korea. But Mr. Kerry needs to think bigger.

The real message is that Mr. Bush's obsession with Iraq has left America off the radar in terms of our security, economy, health care and the rest. If Mr. Kerry can drill this point home, even if things improve in Iraq - and there is no indication that they will - things will get worse for Mr. Bush as voters react not with gratitude but with a wholly reasonable - and selfish - question: "What about us?"

Mr. Kerry can argue convincingly that for every dollar spent improving the lives of Iraqis, an American state, town or family has been shortchanged. And if terrorists strike again before the election, the ultimate effect of Mr. Bush's misdirection of effort and money will be vividly apparent. Mr. Kerry will not have to say a word.

In short, Mr. Kerry's message should be "It's America, stupid." It's short, sweet and memorable, and it pivots well off the enduring ambiguity many Americans feel about the shifting justifications for the war in Iraq.

Clintonian in its simplicity, as an overall theme it is flexible and patriotic. And if that were not enough, it even manages to take a subtle jab at Mr. Bush, who is, after all, the person at whom this simple sentiment is ultimately directed.

Cody Harris is a former congressional press secretary and a staff member on the presidential campaign of Democratic Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman. He attends Stanford Law School.

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