Whine After the Election, Not Now: By BECKY O'MALLEY

Tuesday September 21, 2004

As our family party was getting underway this weekend, Peter laid down the law: “Okay, no more dumping on Kerry, from now until the election.” For a group like ours, that’s hard, really hard. On almost any political topic, everyone has an opinion or five, even the toddlers. There’s no question of Bush, of course, but as charter members of the chattering classes we all have our own ideas about how to get rid of him. As the election approaches, it’s too easy for the chattering classes to turn into the nattering classes, preparing to say “he should have taken my advice” if Kerry doesn’t win. Yesterday’s New York Times and this week’s Nation were full of scoldings for Kerry and his advisors from all kinds of commentators who think they know how to run political campaigns, despite having spent the better part of their lives as scribblers. They’ve done their scribbling in the best venues, granted, and they’ve managed to make a living giving unsolicited advice, but in the last analysis how do they know what they’re talking about?  

Leon Panetta, who has had some real experience in the trenches with both Republicans and Democrats, came as close as anyone to making sense with his op-ed in the New York Times yesterday: “Pick a Message, Any Message.” That’s a simple, obvious idea, but there’s no indication that Kerry is trying to do anything else. The problem is that the media, even the members of the media who claim to understand what a disaster George W. Bush has been, can’t resist picking everything Kerry does to pieces, so that his message gets lost in the reporting of it.  

He’s making campaign speeches, okay? And these speeches, when you hear them, sound a lot like lots of other speeches, and no voter can be sure from listening to the speeches what Kerry will do if elected. But the point, and it’s not a complicated one, is that we can be absolutely sure what Bush will do as president, because he’s already done it. It seems so unsophisticated, so boring, to say that the reason to vote for Kerry is because he’s not George Bush, but that’s the truth. (And we’re going to leave out, for the purpose of this discussion, the California angle of being able to vote for Leonard Peltier or someone because California is sewed up for Kerry. Such votes are sacramental for the voter, but statistically they have not much to do with politics.) 

There seem to be two main modes of reporting on elections these days: drama critic and sports page. It’s either “how good is his performance” or “who’s ahead in the race?” What the chattering classes who have access to the media can do, if they really want to get rid of Bush, is simply to talk straight about the situation the country is in, rather than critiquing Kerry’s performance on the stump as if it were a recently opened off-Broadway play, or trying to second-guess the electorate by calibrating the polls as if they were batting averages.  

A lot of voters seem to look at elections as if they were sports events, and to view casting their votes as a way of trying to bet on the winner. My mathematician friend tells me that the best report on how such voters are thinking comes from some professors in Iowa who have set up a kind of futures market to predict how well Bush and Kerry are doing. As of Monday, he says that they’re rating Bush as being ahead by the equivalent of one percentage point in the polls, which doesn’t seem like much, but is enough to win if the election were today. But margins like that change, and they could change several times between now and the election. Neither the drama critics nor the sportswriters can really tell anyone anything about how Kerry is doing with odds like these, and they should stop trying. It’s the commentators and the voters who need to stay on message, not the candidate.  

Panetta opined that “Mr. Bush is most vulnerable on two issues—Iraq and the economy. Mr. Kerry needs to confront the president on both, with specific proposals that make clear the stark choices facing voters.” But the voters don’t need Kerry to tell them that Bush has made a colossal mess of Iraq. If they don’t know that by now, they could have heard it last week from Republican Senators Lugar and McCain, among others. And they don’t need Kerry to tell them whether the economy is hitting them in the pocketbook—if it were not doing that, he wouldn’t be able to convince them that it was.  

The Planet is getting many fine letters about the campaign from all over the country. We usually don’t print all of them, because we save our available space for local writers, and because we think they’re preaching to the choir in the Bay Area. But people around here should be sending such letters to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Miami Herald and the Toledo Blade and all the other papers around the country in swing states. We should be writing and calling our friends and family in those states, and we should be raising money for organizations who are contacting voters in those states on our behalf.  

This is not a complicated or subtle election. We need to stop sitting around in cafes whining about why Kerry isn’t making the case for us. After Kerry is elected there will be plenty of time for whining. And if Bush wins again, whining will not be enough.