Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Giving Democrats Pause

The Wisconsin primary is one of those political events that give political professionals pause. Here you have Senator John Kerry running the table. There you have a website hit job. And presto!.....a (let's just say) 25-point lead evaporates over a long holiday weekend.

Yikes. It's enough to give any good Democrat the heebie-jeebies. Senator Kerry's inability to put this race to bed is disquieting by itself. His precipitous drop in the estimation of Badger State voters is positively unnerving. The question that hangs there is: what happens when the Bush people start to carve him up? It's not like they don't have a lot to work with!

The answer from the old-line Kerry people will be: "John's a great counter-puncher. Nobody's better in the clinches." This is the story they sold to the New York Times 11 days ago and it is one that they are fond of telling and re-telling at bad bars around Boston. The story line goes something like this: Trailing Jimmy Shannon in the 1984 primary, Kerry fought back and won. Trailing Ray Shamie in the 1984 general (when even Massachusetts voted for Reagan), Kerry fought back and won. Trailing Bill Weld in 1996, Kerry fought back and won. TKOs all, but wins nonetheless.

Fair enough. But is there any evidence to suggest that the United States of America is anything like the state of Massachusetts? Isn't it the most Democratic state in the Union? And wasn't The Boston Globe largely responsible for taking out Ray Shamie, with that silly story about John Birch Society books in the library of one of Shamie's companies? And will the Band of Brothers schtick (which worked so well at the close of the Weld race, after that David Warsh column all but accused Kerry of war crimes) remain as compelling after its constant repetition during the primaries?

William Safire points out today that Kerry has not said one interesting thing since December. Others might say that Kerry has not said one interesting thing (that he hasn't subsequently retracted) in years. What will Kerry say now?

Experienced Kerry watchers in Boston aren't sure, because they're still not sure who has the candidate's ear. John Martilla and Tom Kiley are Kerry's oldest and closest advisers/friends. They've been pushed aside by the Shrum-Devine axis, which works hand-in-glove with the Kennedy embeds who are "managing" the enterprise. Lurking are the Dukakisoids -- John Sasso et alia -- who are anxious to have another shot at (a) Bush. Then there are the Boston boyo types; who are always looking for a piece of the action. And then there are the candidate's real friends, who are having trouble getting through.

It's likely that all these competing voices are causing gridlock in the candidate's brain. Which means that Kerry is likely to stick with Bush-bashing rhetorical oatmeal and endorsement announcements while he sorts out what to do next. This creates an excellent opportunity for Senator Edwards to "frame the choice," as the talking heads say; to talk clearly and concisely to Democratic primary voters about the choice they now face. I'm not sure he's up to it, frankly, and a blizzard of negative advertising would probably knock him off his stride. But today, Edwards has at least some control over what happens next. Which means he still has a shot.