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Time for Kerry to Change His Pitch

By Tina Brown
Thursday, September 9, 2004; Page C01

Does Bush have winner's luck? Just as Kerry launches his fall offensive with Cannonball Carville and other Clinton vets onboard, the wonder boy himself goes under the knife. One of the best campaigners in political history is suddenly benched.

Ronald Reagan's passing was another celestial freebie for Bush. By the time the clouds of eulogy had parted, the raging Abu Ghraib prison scandal was off the front pages, never to recapture the same intensity of focus.

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The Kerry campaign has been afflicted by bubble sickness. Just as everything Bush does is seen through the prism of winning, everything Kerry does has been viewed as a symptom of malaise. Democratic power players seem to earn more peer points for attacking the candidate than attacking the president. They get on the phone and honk at each other about what Kerry's gotta do to fix it, and when they are sick of calling each other they call the New York Times. It all reminds political jokesmith Mark Katz of how it felt in the summer of '88 to be on the Dukakis rapid-response team, formed that June. By July they had dropped "rapid," by August they had dropped "response" and by September they weren't even a team, just a bunch of despondent guys.

Coming at the high point of Democratic consternation, the Clinton news has produced a macabre burst of handicapping from skittish New Yorkers about other possible deus ex machina events that may redirect history.

It is pretty obvious at this point that another major terrorist attack here would clinch the case for Bullhorn Bush, but what about second-tier calamities? Republicans should not imagine that Governor Jeb's chunky, reassuring style giving updates on emergency hurricane relief will yield warm feelings toward the family. According to a paper by Princeton political scientists Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels titled "Blind Retrospection: Electoral Responses to Drought, Flu and Shark Attacks," bad weather usually works against the incumbent. Voters go into the booth, think back on how the year sucked and pull the lever for change.

But at this teetering moment in the campaign every other eventuality seems spinnable by Team Bush. One good side effect of the Clinton melodrama was that it made his advice to Kerry seem oracular. The former president was suddenly being heard as if from a seance in his hospital room Saturday when he urged Kerry out of the paddy fields of Vietnam and back to hammering Bush in the present tense.

The phenomenon that bedevils Kerry, however, is that all the bad news has been around so long it's become the new baseline. A version of olfactory fatigue has set in with the electorate. Just as you can't smell onions when they have been around for a while, you cease to notice the consequences of bad decisions as long as they don't get dramatically worse. Bad news, once it's had time to settle in, isn't news anymore.

You would think that Kerry has plenty of domestic material, but the Bush administration has been so successful at defining success downward that almost any bad news can be preemptively neutered. A small economic uptick becomes a "revival." A successful foreign policy is defined not as finding the guy we wanted to find but starting an open-ended war somewhere else. Lousy job figures? More people in poverty? The staggering deficit? Still fewer with health care, etc., etc.? Been there, done that. Even the president himself looked less engaged when he reeled off the bullet points of his "clear and positive plan" in the domestic part of his speech at the Republican convention.

It's wondrous to see how Rove, Cheney and Co. have managed to wind the war on terror and the war in Iraq into the same menacing turban. Moqtada Sadr, who at first was the unpronounceable new bogeyman with a name out of "The Lion King," has now become in the public mind Sadr, the bad guy we went into Iraq to get for doing 9/11. How did that happen? Everyone seems to want to forget that Sadr surfaced in Iraq only because we did. Or that 9/11 happened while Cheney and Rice were dissing the alarmist terrorism czar Richard Clarke.

Afghanistan? It's over. Afghanistan has gone back to being a Christiane Amanpour kind of place.

The debates. The debates! If Bush does one of those long, eye-darting silences as he reaches for the buzzwords and Kerry scythes through with gleaming, irrefutable data . . . it could be a Democratic win. But Bush marketed his inarticulacy at the convention as part of his Texan authenticity. And what is the chance that Kerry will get himself empretzeled, as Joe Klein put it in Time magazine, in some ancient flip-flop? Bush has nailed down the strong leadership trope to the point that he can say we can't ever win the war on terror and then reverse himself the next day, but for Kerry, one whiff of ambivalence and he's toast.

Now that seductive old story about Bush's missing years in the National Guard is heating up. It dovetails nicely with the timing of the publication next week of Kitty Kelley's new trash-bomb exposé of the Bush family, but the tit for tat offensive has slim chance of inflicting damage with the same tenacity as the Swift boat onslaught. The genius of the president's well-established born-again narrative is that it means he can effectively kiss off the first 40 years of his life without fear of recrimination, while Kerry is doomed to trudge vote-by-vote through every one of his four terms in the Senate.

Democrats may have to make do for now with a winning metaphor. If the long-suffering Boston Red Sox beat the swaggering New York Yankees this month that could be really, really good. It would show that even winner's luck can run out.

© 2004, Tina Brown

© 2004 The Washington Post Company