Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Kerry is not dead 

This was the text of a sign that Blicero and Dawkins and I carried during the August 29 March. I am posting now merely to affirm that I believe the statement to be true. Mr. Abote has insisted in recent comment threads on Kerry's virtues and bright prospects, and after yesterday's speech, I am inclined to agree.

First of all, it was very heartening to see Kerry come out with a full Iraq critique. Not just because I agree with it, but because it confirmed what we had all taken for granted--that he has a full awareness of reality, that he is a smart man, that he can speak well when he is saying what he means. We took this for granted, but it was impossible, for me anyway, not to doubt it after observing the summer campaign. After so many months of watching Kerry stifle himself, I was beginning to wonder what was behind the image that Shrum produced by strait-jacketing his candidate. It was exhilarating to see the true Kerry just walk out and reveal himself, as if he always could have done that, as if it was always just a question of timing and will-power.

And maybe the timing was carefully controlled. Maybe, that is, a late attack was always planned. The media have leapt on this story with real excitement. It has reshaped the campaign. And it's probably better that Kerry and Bush debate this now, as opposed to two months ago. It will seize the voters' attention, especially because the news from Iraq has been so bad recently. The "Bush-denying-reality" theme is very potent because it calls attention to something obvious about every single one of Bush's utterances, something that people know instinctively--that the whole campaign is a show, perhaps entertaining to some of us, but a show nonetheless. Kerry has got to force the media to measure speeches against the headlines. He has to insist that "optimistic" speeches cannot be assessed using aesthetic criteria alone.

The response of the public to the Iraq debate is very hard to predict. But the old conventional wisdom about the public always wanting to "support the troops and be optimistic" may not apply here. The level of Bush's mendacity, the absurdity of his claims, and the horror of what the public is being asked to accept are all unprecedented, and perhaps these things simply won't be accepted by a public that never supported unilateral invasion. If the old CW is still true, then Bush will win regardless of what Kerry does. But Kerry's attacks will have behind them the special force of the obvious truth.

Bottom line: Bush and Rove have always distinguished themselves by pushing the old CW for Republican strategy to ferocious extremes--to the point where the strategy is blindingly obvious. The media love this, because it makes their two-bit "analysis" all the more easy, and all the more important. Bush and Rove allow the media, in the guise of interpreters, to explain to the public why Bush and Rove have to win. Media capitulation will probably happen again when Bush accuses Kerry of causing the deaths of American soldiers. But the obviousness of the Bush/Rove tactics--the fact that the only suprise is their extremity and ferocity--could cut two ways. If it gives the media the pleasure of explaining to the public what is going on, it could also invite the public, with the assistance of a forthright Kerry, to say "stop lying" and to vote the liars out.

UPDATE--Juan Cole envisions an altogether different, and nightmarish, but nonetheless entirely plausible, state of affairs: "I have a sinking feeling that the American public may like Bush's cynical misuse of Wilsonian idealism precisely because it covers the embarrassment of their having gone to war, killed perhaps 25,000 people, and made a perfect mess of the Persian Gulf region, all out of a kind of paranoia fed by dirty tricks and bad intelligence. And, maybe they have to vote for Bush to cover the embarrassment of having elected him in the first place."


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