Potholes on the campaign trail

Never in modern political history have Democrats been so united, so early, on a candidate and on a conviction that the incumbent president has to be beaten, for the good of the country as much as for their own selfish desires.

But many — maybe most of them — secretly fear that they can’t possibly beat Goliath. They worry that they won’t have a chance when the immensely rich and powerful Republican war machine rolls into action.

They remember Michael Dukakis, far ahead in the polls when the 1988 campaign started, looking like a bad Disney character, tooling around in a tank with a goofy grin and a helmet two sizes too large. They remember how the Republican war machine defined him, distorted him and smashed him.

They fear precisely the same thing will happen to John Kerry.

Well, time to set the record straight. Yes, George W. Bush’s owners and keepers have vast amounts of money. They are pouring it into commercials right now, outspending the Democrats by something like 25-1 in recent weeks.

Which means, really, very little, this early. Few are paying attention, and won’t till the autumn. The truth is that, while Democrats may well blow this election, the brilliance of the Bush campaign team has been greatly exaggerated.

Once, it was indeed so. Lee Atwater, the field general who managed Dukakis’ demise, was a true strategic evil genius. But he isn’t taking part in this campaign, because he happens to be dead. The forces of light killed him (hey, everybody drags God into politics these days, right?) via a brain tumor in 1991, just before Bush’s re-election campaign swung into gear.

Today, nobody ever thinks of Poppy Bush’s re-election campaign as being anything but a howling failure. The victor of Kuwait ended up with a mere 37 percent of the vote, less than Barry Goldwater or George McGovern.

Yes, you say, but doesn’t Dubya have Karl Rove? You know, the guy who looks like a toad? Why, yes, and let’s look at what happened at the end of the last campaign. Given the economy, the Democrats should have won without breaking a sweat. But they forgot what James Carville tried to learn ’em, and the campaign instead became about how disgusted with Bill Clinton we all were.

Add to that how Americans decided that they just weren’t comfortable with Al Gore — who often seems uncomfortable with himself — and by the end of October, George W. Bush had the election all but won.

And then he blew it. He took a weekend off, then came back and poured time and millions into California. The Democrats never spent a cent there. They knew they had it won regardless. Rove started chirping to the networks that there was the possibility of a California upset or at least a very close contest.

Dubya lost California by an astonishing 1,293,774 votes. He also, that last week of the campaign, accused the Democrats of wanting “the federal government controlling the Social Security like it’s some kind of federal program.”

As they say in Texas, Social Security is indeed a federal program, idjit. That revived the strong sentiment that maybe Bush Minor was too dumb to be president. His Social Security gaffe came the very day, by the way, the cover-up of his 1976 drunken driving conviction was exposed.

So the American people reluctantly, if narrowly, chose the robot over the imitation cowboy, only to have the partisan U.S. Supremes intervene.

Now we are in a new election cycle, and so far, the Republican spin operation has been remarkably ham-handed. They have launched an Internet campaign to compare John Kerry to Austin Powers, whom he resembles about as much as he does Charlize Theron.

They have spread a whispering campaign that Kerry uses Botox. Apart from the obvious — as in, who gives a damn? — one look at the Democrat’s bottom-of-the-sea craggy face ought to be enough to answer that.

Republicans may — almost certainly will — get better, and, later in the election cycle, Democrats will have the money to answer in kind.

Yet they, and John Kerry, need to keep their eye on the ball. Republicans can’t dig up Lee Atwater, but Democrats can and should get Carville, their Svengali, to leave the talk shows long enough to come and swing an incense burner at party headquarters and repeat his mantra, over and over:

It’s the economy, stupid.

Whatever nonsense the Republicans repeat about recovery, the unemployment rate isn’t going down, and neither are fuel prices. And inflation — perhaps stagflation — may soon be upon us.

Yes, many of us think the war was wrong and the Bushies have made a mess of our foreign policy. Americans, however, historically trust Republicans to do a better job abroad, and Democrats to do better at home.

John Kerry, by virtue of his war hero record, ought to avoid the charge of being soft on terrorism. Indeed, he must reassure Americans that he will fight to keep them safe. But if he is to win this election, he needs to give them concrete reasons to hope for a better future, where they can work and afford their children’s education and their own medications after retirement.

Do that, and Democrats win. Don’t, and they won’t.


Passion and revulsion: Following my last column on religion and politics, I was urged to see Mel Gibson’s Passion, which has been accused of open anti-Semitism. It is, frankly, the most revolting movie I have ever seen. The underlying current is sadomasochism, and the movie occasionally has all the refinement of a junior high school class. The devil has a worm in its nose, and when one of the thieves jeers at Jesus, a crow comes down and eats his eyeballs. Unless you have a thing for flies and maggots, avoid this one at all costs.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]
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