Too Conventional

Dems Play It Safe

Greg Payne
5 min read
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As those things go, John Kerry's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention wasn't bad—his bizarre case of “chin sweat” notwithstanding. No one, of course, expected John Kerry to deliver the virtuoso performance U.S. Senate candidate Barak Obama electrified the donkeys with. That's just not his style .And, to paraphrase a line from Chariots of Fire, no political handler can put in a candidate what God didn't.

Instead, the goal for the Kerry campaign was a modest one: make Kerry look like someone who could be president. In that sense, Kerry and his consultants may have succeeded. But a ’minimal expectations' strategy is also the Achilles' heel of the Kerry campaign.

Kerry's speech was, by anyone's standard, “safe” in political terms. Kerry didn't talk about gay marriage or affirmative action. He didn't mention global warming or gun control. Kerry actually spent more time describing the Colorado hospital he was born in than his plan for tackling the budget deficit.

In the most telling display of the Kerry campaign's apparent risk aversion, the nominee didn't say, “make me your next president and I will get our nation out of the quagmire of Iraq and bring our men and women home,” even though you just know that's what the crowd wanted. Instead, Kerry went the opposite direction and proposed 40,000 new active duty soldiers, although he was quick to explain “not in Iraq”—whatever that means.

Kerry's FleetCenter speech wasn't without some sustenance for the assembled. He took indirect, nameless jabs at Attorney General John Ashcroft and Vice President Dick Cheney and at W, too—saying obliquely the nation needs a President who will “start telling the truth to the American people.” But in political terms, Kerry's speech was akin to hitting the local Steak and Ale and getting bottled water and a Caesar salad.

Unfortunately for Kerry, you don't usually win political contests feeding your ground troops leafy greens. Like it or not, the 2004 elections won't be decided by the political vegans of the country. This is a campaign for the carnivores.

Some Democrats seem to understand. Al Sharpton revved the delegate crowd with a smorgasbord of liberal themes. That line about “40 acres and a mule” and “riding this donkey” was hysterical—even to a Republican. Obama spoke movingly and authentically about “the more than 900 service men and women … who will not be returning to their hometowns” and “gay friends in the Red States” and the worship of “an awesome God” in the Blue States (best speech of the entire convention, IMHO …). Both men said something that was a little more substantive than just being for “jobs,” “the middle class” and “Old Glory.”

Kerry seems to have bought into the conventional wisdom that the election is a battle for the hearts and (indecisive) minds of “swing” voters—folks still struggling with the question of whether Miller Lite tastes great or is less filling. Most campaigns tailor bland, meaningless rhetoric in hopes of attracting them. Kerry's speech must have been a real pleaser in that regard as it contained plenty of focus group driven mush. “The future doesn't belong to fear. It belongs to freedom.” C'mon … isn't that something Bush would say?

In playing it safe, the Kerry campaign is suggesting its approach to Nov. 2 isn't to inspire and motivate supporters. The game plan is to not lose. The problem with that strategy, though, is that if you're aren't on offense in the rough and tumble of a political race, you're on defense—and defense doesn't have the best track record.

Some will say, “Well … Kerry was astute enough to win the nomination,” but let's remember how he won it. The stars aligned. The media, along with Congressman Dick Gephardt, hammered front-runner Howard Dean before the Iowa caucuses. No one really attacked Kerry. It's doubtful that dynamic will cut Kerry's way in the general election.

Karl Rove and Co. will also be “reporting for duty” and they don't do defense. But they do prefer their steak cooked very rare.

From Boston with Love

One of the convention highpoints for me was seeing NM Democrat State Chair John Wertheim at the side of Lt. Governor Diane Denish on national television as New Mexico declared its delegates for Kerry. Wertheim looked like an exuberant Boy's Stater grinning from ear to ear as he stood on the top of his tip-toes to stay in the camera angle. Nothing wrong there—I just wished John had really made use of the photo-op by waving at the camera and mouthing “Hi Mom!”

“We Gotta Get Out of This Place. If It's the Last Thing We Ever Do.”

After announcing a $40 million dollar budget shortfall, the elimination of 83 staff positions and (still) unable to adequately address the pressing issue of student overcrowding on Albuquerque's Westside, the Albuquerque Public Schools Board hit the road for a summer retreat at the historic Sagebrush Inn in scenic Taos.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author. Payne, a former city councilor, can be reached at

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