Bland on the Run

Kerry needs to inspire if he wants to beat the Great Miscalculator

George W. Bush finally admits he "miscalculated" on Iraq, a limited admission by a man elected on a platform that made fun of Al Gore's "fuzzy" math.

Although if you were listening to Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan last week, who announced it was time to start slashing baby boomer Social Security benefits, maybe it will finally sink in that Gore's "lockbox" for retirement funds wasn't so dumb after all, and that his "fuzzy" math was dead on.

Bush's performance undercuts all those arguments for basic achievement tests that kids are supposed to pass to graduate. As little Dick and Jane go back to school, they have my permission to tell teacher to stick the WASL test where the sun don't shine. If the president of the United States isn't held accountable for simple addition and subtraction, why should they be? Apparently, being bad at math is part of being a "strong leader."

Bush hasn't yet taken full responsibility for the full range of his "miscalculations." He miscalculated how many troops it would take to settle things in Iraq. He miscalculated weapons of mass destruction. He miscalculated the number of jobs that would be created under his administration. He miscalculated the benefits of his tax cuts. He miscalculated the size of the federal deficit. He miscalculated the cost of the Iraq war to American taxpayers.

Is it arithmetic dyslexia? Hardly likely when the bad math always results in numbers that are in your political favor. Would you trust a business partner with such a track record?

Never in recent history have the Democrats had an opponent with such an abysmal record. Yet they can't land a punch. As Bush's poll numbers rise on the lies his surrogates tell about John Kerry's Vietnam record, you can only watch in horror. How can a president this bad, this dishonest, remain as popular as he is? The Democrats are already frustrated and beginning to run as if their campaign is far behind.

There was some evidence of this at the Kerry rally in Tacoma last Saturday, Aug. 28.

The event attracted an estimated 20,000 people, but it was hardly galvanizing. The long wait in the heat in a Tacoma Dome parking lot for a candidate who was an hour late didn't help. Neither did a poor sound system and a lack of music to fill long interludes of inexcusable dead air. The warm-up speakers were dull. U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks of Bremerton had volume on his side, as he always does. He could be heard five blocks away, delivering clich├ęs like "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," which is the kind of loser stuff you might have heard at a Walter Mondale rally. The only thing worse is when you're told not to pay attention to the polls. Either way, it translates as "things are going badly."

Patty Murray spoke, but she's never been an inspiring speaker and is even less so when she brags about carrying water for Boeing. Then public radio star Garrison Keillor sang "America the Beautiful" when the mikes weren't working. His soft, somnolent tones practically put the sun-baked listeners in the peanut gallery to sleep. I saw people curled up on the concrete. You don't fire political passions with a lullaby from a guy from Lake Woebegone.

When the main speakers arrived, things livened up. Bruce Springsteen music blared and Gen. Wesley Clark, the bluntest speaker, called Bush an "incompetent commander in chief." Kerry himself was appealing and did pretty well, stalking the stage with a microphone and focusing on how Bush policies are hurting the middle and working classes, and how he'd fix that. But it was mostly bland policy generalities. Yes, the difference between the Bush and Kerry visions is about values, which Kerry emphasized, but you have to make people feel that difference, not reduce it to a disagreement about how to tweak tax policy or social security.

The Democratic vision is an emotional one-driven by genuine compassion and a sense of fair play. John Edwards knows how to make this case with a kind of positive aggressiveness-a style that lifts his listeners while also attacking his opponents. Al Gore, in his few good moments, caught some of that during the latter stages of the 2000 campaign, his much-criticized "populist" period. I saw him in this mode at Westlake Park and even he was more inspiring, more passionate than Kerry in Tacoma. Kerry has the skills to be a better campaigner than Gore, but he'd better show it soon. During the last 20 minutes of his speech, the crowd began draining away, like the ninth-inning "fans" at yet another Mariners loss. It's not that those folks were going to go and vote for George Bush, but you'd much rather see these true believers riveted by the rhetoric and taking that rally spirit with them instead of worrying about the traffic.

Here's another thing they say when campaigns aren't going well: There's still time. There is, but the Kerry campaign has used up its allotment of sitting on its lead, playing it safe, and relying on anger about Bush to see them through. They can't rely on the self-righteous hope of all Democrats that America will wake up and suddenly realize how dreadful this administration is. They can't afford to wait for some new revelation of misconduct, malfeasance, or miscalculation to tip the balance their way.

It's not enough to say, "America can do better." Kerry has to awaken the sense of hope in our hearts and convince us he's the man to lead us to that better place. Otherwise, we'll get another four years of the Great Miscalculator, whose motto ought to be "American can do worse-and I'll prove it."

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