John Kerry lost the 2004 Presidential election because he failed to distinguish himself and his positions from the incumbent President Bush. Given a period of war and uncertainty, the American people chose to go with the President they already knew instead of a candidate who “might” be better. The nation might have switched to (and elected) Kerry had he offered a compelling and substantive narrative about a change for America, but he did not, and that is the key underlying reason he lost the election. That narrative needed to play through many different issues, but 6 key ones emerged in 2003 and 2004: 1) Terrorism/War on Terror, 2) Characterization of the candidates, 3) Taxes, 4) 527 organizations, specifically Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, 5) Focus on battleground states, and 6) America contra mundum/unilateralism vs. multilateralism.
In 2003, America was only 2 years removed from the horrific attacks of September 11th, 2001. President Bush had, in public perception throughout 2002, handled the crisis fairly well. In fact, when visiting Ground Zero in New York in the days following the attacks, “Bush achieved what almost all agreed was the defining moment of his early presidency” (Ceaser and Busch 41) when he responded through a bullhorn to a fireman who couldn’t hear him: “I hear you, America hears you, and those who knocked these towers down will hear from all of us very soon”. The crowd was electrified and chants of “USA, USA, USA” could be heard. In the same time period, America witnessed the truly unbelievable – the Democratic Majority Leader of the Senate, in the person of Tom Daschle of South Dakota, hugging the President in a show of unity.
This momentum and overflow of public support were slowed as the march toward war in Iraq intensified after the “short” retaliatory war against Afghanistan. The President had been charting a definitive and clear course towards war with Iraq. But by 2003 the question had prominently emerged as to whether it was the “right” course. In truth, Bush – as he ran his campaign in 2000 – was not originally interested in making foreign policy the centerpiece of his administration (and what would later become his legacy). “Bush entered office fully anticipating a domestic presidency. Only 12 percent of voters in 2000 identified foreign policy or national security as the most important issue” (Ceaser and Busch 41). He had campaigned, as Ron Paul has brought up so often in the 2008 campaign, on a “humble” foreign policy, one that would eschew nation building. It seemed, then, that after September 11th, President Bush was the “accidental” foreign policy President.
Against that backdrop – a President who had campaigned and won a disputed election on mostly domestic issues who had been confronted with the first attack on American soil since World War II from an enemy with no nationality (that could be held to account) – the 2004 election came into focus. For the very first time, the President’s narrative which conflated the problem of Al-Qaeda with the threat of Iraq vis-à-vis the “War on Terror” began to be openly questioned. Proof, links, and evidence were requested demanding the link between 9/11 and Saddam. Nothing was ever produced from the West Wing. Yet, the voters themselves seemed confused. “Among those for whom the war in Iraq mattered most, almost 3/4 voted for Kerry. On the other hand, concerns about terrorism worked in the President’s favor; Bush won 86% of those votes. This difference demonstrates that the way the candidates framed the issue affected the way voters perceived the war on terror” (Clark and Schaffner 17) and “depending on one’s poing of view, the Iraq War was already closely related to the terrorism issue or it was a separate issue altogether” (4).
Because John Kerry didn’t strike the same tone that the once seemingly unstoppable candidate Howard Dean did about the war, it seemed that he at least had a “plan” to get out. It wasn’t the Nixonian “secret plan” – indeed he spelled out what it was that had to be done – a summit with Arab allies to encourage cooperation, faster training for Iraqi security forces, and a timetable for withdrawal from the region. These are all measures that to this day have not been undertaken by either major party. However, Kerry had voted for the war, or the authority, or whatever distinction the Massachusetts senator was seeking in trying to strike the anti-war stance he so eloquently had done in his testimony before Congress many years prior in the Winter Soldier project about the war in Vietnam. Because he refused to say that Iraq was a mistake, voters perceived that his stance was not radically different from the President’s. It seemed he wanted to move things along in Iraq, and that was not different enough for the American people to change chief executives.
The Bush campaign also effectively caricatured Kerry as the Massachusetts out-of-touch with middle America elitist liberal. The Club for Growth had labeled, in one of its early ads, Howard Dean as a “Volvo driving, latte drinking” elitist. This smear, it seemed, would work on Kerry also.
…The Bush campaign began airing its negative anti-Kerry commercials with the goal of presenting the Massachusetts senator as a flip-flopper who regularly voted on both sides of controversial issues, including supplemental funding for the occupation in Iraq. In responding to this allegation, Kerry did little to dispel the image that the Bush ad presented, with his comment that “I actually did vote for the $87 Billion (supplemental) before I voted against it” (Wayne 27).
In contrast, Bush was painted as the ordinary American, one who routinely butchered ordinary English – and the weakness of Dan Quayle that seemed so deadly in the memory of his father’s (Bush 41) failed campaign for reelection was turned into a strength. So he was “misunderestimated” or used “strategery” (as the titles of two Bill Sammon books attest) – it didn’t matter. The Republicans constructed an effective narrative. He was “presenting himself as a leader who would make an unpopular decision” (Denton 116). In this characterization, Kerry was the out of touch liberal, the President the ordinary American who drove pickups on his ranch in Crawford.
Additionally, Kerry bore the handicap of his service in Congress, providing critics with a twenty-year record that would inevitably show changed positions, apparent inconsistencies, and political compromises. His complicated explanations were joyfully trumpeted by Republicans as admissions that he was no more than a ‘flip-flopper,’ unreliable as a potential commander in chief”
Americans are never in favor of tax increases, but most especially not in the middle of a war. This is a country that counts as one of its first strikes towards revolution and the birth of the Republic an event in which tons of tea were thrown overboard rather than submit to a de facto reverse tax, in the form of a market flooded with cheap British East India Company tea. Kerry promised to roll back the Bush tax cuts, and hence he could make the claim “no new taxes”. He simply wanted to sunset the current tax cuts. Again, because no Democrat in modern times has been perceived as a “tax-cutter”, Kerry’s distinctions which would back up his “no new taxes” pledge were not seen as a credible by the American public, and even if he was against taxes, so was President Bush – so again, the question rhetorically flitted into the mind of the voter – “why change”?
“Change” seemed to be the watchword of McCain-Feingold, which was supposed to reform soft-money political contributions. But, perhaps in a fit of naivete, the bill failed to account for a loophole that allowed the burgeoning of “527” organizations that could take unlimited donations and were not constrained to limitations placed on political parties. Organizations like Moveon.org, The Club for Growth, and most importantly, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, readily exploited this loophole and used their huge contributions to make loud and noisy contributions to the voices and din of the 2004 Election.
The book of reference for the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth movement was the Jerome Corsi/John O’Neill co-authored book Unfit for Command. Attacking what was perceived to be a strength for Kerry, his service in Vietnam, the book refuted the quality and character of Kerry’s service, and concluded thus:
The question is of fitness and character. The loyalty that is indispensable to successful command cannot simply be restored because a person now wants to be leader. John Kerry might well continue in the Senate, but as commander in chief he has, unfortunately, breached the trust it would take to hold his band of brothers together. In the end, our objection to John Kerry, is not his past, it is the future as predicted by his past.
O’Neill and Corsi 185
As part of this echo chamber, Vice President Cheney chimed in: “In his familiar role of Dr. Doom, the designated hit man…Cheney suggested, outrageously, that by voting for Kerry Americans could be inviting another terrorist attack” (Thomas 99). Kerry didn’t respond quickly, or frankly, at all, to these claims. While he denounced it as a “pack of lies” to more than one person on more than one occasion, and once famously to one of his campaign chiefs, Ted Devine, he never openly confronted his accusers and the book and numerous related Internet and television ads took a major toll on his poll numbers. Even a film quickly put together in his defense, Going Upriver, based on a book written by Douglas Brinkley, received little attention. The book featured interviews with Vietnam Veteran and Congressman Max Cleeland, as well as numerous men that had served with Kerry on his Swift Boat. This failure to uphold his own service in Vietnam, which was substantially more dangerous than President Bush’s wartime National Guard service (also in dispute, but outside the scope of this essay) left voters with no distinction regarding military service. If Kerry’s military record was disputed, who really cared about President Bush’s rampant National Guard absenteeism in Alabama?
Alabama was not one of the states that either candidate paid attention to in 2004. Following the mold that seemed cast in iron since the ultra-polarizing election of 2000, the candidates decided to focus solely on the “battleground” states – and counted on winning over close states in 2004 rather than winning over the rest of the polarized country. “After the 2000 presidential election, much was made of the red states…and the blue states…but as the 2004 presidential campaign began, much more attention was paid to purple states those that either Bush or Kerry might be able to win” (13). Since both parties were focusing on 5-10 key states instead of conducting a nationwide election, again, Kerry missed an opportunity to make a distinction between himself and the President. He could have been the candidate that ignored the polarization of 2000 and sought support in all the states, rather than a few. By being a slave to statistics and predictions, Kerry only solidified his position in the voter’s mind as a consummate politician, only consumed with winning, instead of making a real difference.
Finally, the one failing of the President that Kerry seemed to clearly articulate didn’t resonate with a mostly jingoist American public. This was the issue of America contra mundum. Kerry lamented the fact that we were an absentee, or worse, a truant member of the world community. We had pulled out of the Kyoto treaty, aimed at combating harmful emissions; the World Court, designed to hold all nations accountable for criminal actions; and had sidestepped an almost certain Security Council veto to “go it alone” in Iraq. America, Kerry compellingly argued, had shattered her alliances. He argued in his first debate with the President: “I’ll never give a veto to any country over our security. But I also know how to lead those alliances. This President has left them in shatters all across the globe, and we’re now 90% of the casualties in Iraq and 90% of the costs. I think that’s wrong and I think we can do better” (Denton 98). Indeed, he was right. By contrast, America’s tab in the first Gulf War had only been 7 out of the 62 Billion dollars eventually spent, due to effective alliance building by, ironically, President Bush’s father. Yet it seems that in the one case that Kerry was able to draw a distinction between himself as a multilateralist – one who would thoughtfully consult with our allies before acting – and the President as a unilateralist – one who would do what he thought best, and the world be damned – the public would not have any of it. The Bush campaign seized upon Kerry’s phrase “global test” in one of the debates to intimate that he would make his foreign policy the demesne of the world community. Indeed, following his lackluster performance in the first debate, the President “recovered in the last two debates. Thus, on balance, the debates advantaged Kerry and contributed to making the 2004 reelection of President Bush closer than it might have been” (Denton 118). Kerry’s “global test” was a “global flop”.
In the final analysis, the election was not Kerry’s “to lose” as so many thought it would be as the country headed into a rocky 2004. It was his “to win”, and because he failed to paint a compelling narrative clearly distinguishing himself from the President, he indeed lost. While it might be argued that he only lost, technically, due to 150,000 vote difference in the state of Ohio, an old saying goes “close only counts in dancing and horseshoes”. Kerry lost not because the President failed, but because as a candidate he had not made himself a positive alternative to the President. He had cobbled together a coalition that was anti-Bush, but not decidedly pro-Kerry. And that made all the difference.
Ceaser and Busch. Red over Blue The 2004 Elections and American Politics. Lanhaw, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
Clark and Schaffner. Election 2004: An American Government Supplement. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2005.
Denton Jr., Robert E., Ed. The 2004 Presidential Campaign A Communication Perspective. Boulder, CO: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005.
Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. Dir. George Butler. Swiftboat Films, LLC, 2004.
O’Neill, John E., and Corsi, Jerome L. Unfit for Command. Washington D.C.: Regnery Press, 2004.
Nelson, Michael, Ed. The Elections of 2004. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2005.
Thomas, Evan. Election 2004 How Bush won and what you can expect in the future. Washington D.C.: Public Affairs, 2004.
Wayne, Stephen J. The Quest for the 2004 Nomination and Beyond. Belmont, CA: Thomson and Wadsworth, 2005.