. . . A Writer On the Right
Sunday, July 25, 2004; Page B01
TO: John Kerry
FROM: Ken Khachigian,
RE: The Speech
Based on my collaboration with President Reagan for his GOP convention remarks of 1984 and 1988, I'd like to offer a couple of pointers for your prime-time moment on Thursday night. The presidential candidate acceptance speech is unique in the American political culture, especially for a challenger. Not only will this be the largest audience you have ever addressed, but your own party and the political media have already set a high bar for your success. You will be expected to meet five essential goals: motivating your troops, honing your rhetoric, framing the campaign debate, introducing your ticket and defining yourself.
But Boston, you have a problem.
Despite more than a year of massive and relentless attacks on the incumbent administration in a time of great controversy, you are still running even with President Bush in opinion poll after opinion poll. To be generous, you remain stuck in neutral without a truly compelling case for changing the leadership of America.
This is a widely shared view. Last Sunday, The Post's David Broder wrote that the absence of a surge on your behalf suggests that you haven't sold yourself to swing voters. At this week's convention, he admonished, you cannot afford to miss the last best chance to put your stamp on this race.
However, it seems to me that your real problem is that you already have put your stamp on this race, and now your speech must repair the damage. Regrettably for you, the old standby "flip-flop" charge has taken on some pretty decent legs, what with some of the comments you've made of late. For example, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it." And, "I don't own an SUV," yet "we also have . . . a big Suburban." And so on.
(Given your serial reversals on a number of positions, some of us have enjoyed a few chuckles thinking of your marriage to Teresa as the perfect union of 57 varieties with 57 variables.)
You ignore the perception of inconstancy at your peril. While campaigning for reelection in 1940, Franklin Roosevelt provided this apt illustration of the problem with trying to be all things to all people: "We all know the story of the unfortunate chameleon which turned brown when placed on a brown rug, and turned red when placed on a red rug, but who died a tragic death when they put him on a Scotch plaid."
There is no better opportunity than a nationally televised convention speech to clarify your thinking for the American public. For example, you recently said, regarding troop reductions in Iraq: "I have a plan for how we can get there." But then you declined to reveal it. "Secret plans" are not selling points for presidential leadership. If you've got a plan, lay it out there. Now is the time.
Your second challenge is your veep choice, John Edwards. (If I may digress for a moment, a ticket of running mates with the same first name is confusing; many of us aren't always sure which "John" is being referred to. Think about taking the lead of your newest surrogate, Whoopi Goldberg, who dubbed Edwards "The Kid" during the recent Radio City Music Hall Bush-bashing. In fact, to simplify things, I've already started thinking of Edwards as "Johnny the Kid.")
Not to burst your bubble, but despite the accolades and media swoon, Johnny the Kid's bottom-line effect on your head-to-head polls with Bush-Cheney has been basically zippo -- the ultimate political reality show. So my next piece of advice is to use your speech to rehabilitate your former rival so he can be a credible running mate.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
_____Outlook Live: Q & A_____
Kenneth Khachigian will field questions and comments about his piece in a live discussion Tuesday, July 27 at 1 p.m. ET.
Jeff Shesol will field questions and comments about his piece in a live discussion Wednesday, July 28 at 2 p.m. ET.