Message to Kerry: Don’t Repeat Gore’s Mistakes From 2000
After today’s primaries and caucuses, Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) will be a “stone’s throw” from clinching the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. With 10 states and more than 1,151 delegates at stake, Kerry’s broad support should allow him to quickly unify the party and prepare for the general election. My advice to this proud, decorated veteran and his stellar campaign team is simple: Build on your primary victories, reach out beyond the people who brought you here, and make sure you have an integrated (and I mean that in all respects) team of regional and national surrogates. Most importantly, make sure you define yourself before you are defined. [IMGCAP(1)]
In the 2000 post-game analysis, one of George W. Bush’s senior campaign strategists reflected on the pivotal moment in the race. In essence, his message was that after Al Gore got rid of former Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.), the thing that surprised the Bush camp the most was Gore’s five weeks of sheer silence. It is clear in retrospect that Gore could have used the chance to frame Bush as an extreme candidate who catered to the radical right wing of his party in order to win elections. We could have painted Bush as an out-of-touch extremist after his visit to Bob Jones University. But we went silent. The GOP filed the void. The lesson to Democrats is clear: We must be vigorous in defining our message.
Those five weeks of silence caused Gore to lose his footing as the Bush team used that time to seize control of the campaign rhetoric and reinvent Bush as a “compassionate conservative.”
The Bush team got it right. They saw an opportunity for Bush to set the agenda and they took it. Meanwhile, after clinching our party’s nomination in early March, Team Gore missed a strategic opportunity to define the race in our terms and force Bush to compete on our issue terrain. Rather, we spent weeks struggling to get the right post-primary message and to expand our primary team in order to implement a successful attack against our Republican opponent. This was an important moment and an opportunity lost. John Kerry should learn from, rather than repeat, our mistake.
As soon as Kerry wraps up the nomination, the Bush team is ready to launch an unprecedented air and ground assault on the Democratic nominee and the Democratic Party across the board, leader by leader, point by point, market by market. The truth is, it has already started, and the Kerry team can begin responding today by outlining its vision for America and calling on party leaders and activists across the country to help. Pick up the phone and call Edwards, Dean, Clark, Graham, Gephardt, Kucinich, Lieberman, Braun and Sharpton supporters and other nonaligned and disenchanted party activists for help. Barring a miracle today, I would place Sen. John Edwards’ (N.C.) people on my “to do” list as soon as possible this week.
But it’s clear that the primary season is over, and by the weekend, Kerry must be ready to respond to Bush’s opening salvo by launching an equally aggressive, energized and focused campaign in the five months leading up to the Democratic National Convention in Boston. Kerry can start again this week by reminding the American people what the country would be like under his leadership. That message must be positive, yet realistic, and it must take into account Bush’s assertion that he is a wartime president. Kerry, who delivered a great speech last week on national security, must begin the battle on this issue and remind voters that Democrats have a plan to keep America’s borders and its allies safe and secure.
Like Gore in 2000, Kerry is mostly under-defined right now. Most Americans who have voted up to now know that Kerry won the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary and that he’s a war hero. But, President Bush and his minions are beginning a systematic effort to make Kerry unpalatable. No one should be surprised to wake up tomorrow and listen to right-wing trash talk and negative portrayals of Kerry’s background and voting record on the Internet and conservative talk radio shows. After pulling their punches to rally their well-organized and financed right-wing base, the anti Kerry surrogates will push their envelope into the mainstream media. Kerry told them to bring it on. Now, Democrats must get ready for the biggest challenge to my party in 50 years.
Kerry can get into the act quickly by sticking with the same formula that helped turn his faltering pre-primary campaign around. Kerry cannot become someone he is not and, in the process, fall into the Bush campaign trap that he’s “wishy-washy” on key issues. Voters must know where Kerry stands on important national issues and why he took those positions. Hello, is any like-minded Democratic Senator other than my good friend Edward Kennedy ready to campaign across America? Has anyone called Tom Harkin, Bill Bradley, Jimmy Carter or Al Gore lately to chew the fat?
Clearly, Kerry’s “band of brothers” who fought alongside him in Vietnam helped paint a picture of him as a courageous leader and warrior. As the nomination campaign transitions into the fall campaign, they should not leave those men behind on the primary trail. Bring them on the road immediately and teach them to become effective surrogates on cable shows and radio programs. The long general election season has started. Whoever wins this post-primary phase will have defined the character/profile terrain and the issues terrain for the fall.
We allowed Gore to be defined — the Elian Gonzalez fiasco in March 2000 played a big part in all of this — by his reaction to outside events. Team Kerry should remember that a tough campaign, as this clearly will be, will have not one but many defining moments. And what defines a campaign is not an issue, or event, or rumors, or statement, but how and when the campaign responds. How will Kerry respond if Osama bin Laden is captured? Remember Howard Dean’s response to the capture of Saddam Hussein? There will likely be other issues that surface on the domestic front and Team Kerry will not have two weeks, three focus groups and one national poll to come up with a response. It’s show time all the time from now until the polls close on Election Day.
Take nothing for granted. There will be some handholding required to bring folks into the fray. But, if Team Kerry moves swiftly to outline his vision, respects its core party voters and expands beyond it with some passion, Democrats can avoid the pitfalls that kept Al Gore from winning the White House outright in 2000.
Donna L. Brazile, the campaign manager for Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore in 2000, runs her own grassroots political consulting firm.