As you watch the debate on Thursday night, remember: No matter what happens, on Friday morning, you’re going to hear that the race is tightening.
A SURE BET in this campaign is that the media will write a big October comeback story for John Kerry. It is evitable for three reasons. First, the media works in a pack that is happiest when following a simple narrative. Second, from moribund to miracle campaigner is Kerry’s tiresome myth turned worn-out cliché. Third, this is indeed a tight race and–as with any incumbent seeking reelection–the undecided vote will break heavily against Bush, which will make Kerry look like he is surging late. (Even hapless Michael Dukakis had such a late surge.)
The signs of this pending storyline are already apparent in the coverage of Kerry’s new team of savvy advisors. Their decision to bet the entire Kerry campaign on a debate over the Iraq war–a strategic suicide note in my view–is the required “big move” such stories demand and is being applauded as a masterstroke. This is where narrative and reality truly differ. If President Bush wins this campaign, the decision to focus the entire Kerry campaign on a debate over the war, instead of on domestic issues, will be a key ingredient to the president’s success. Kerry’s mistake is that it is impossible to have a serious campaign-winning political victory over the administration without a serious policy difference between the two. Howard Dean had a policy difference with the Bush administration on Iraq; Kerry essentially does not.
All his squirming and wiggling aside, Kerry essentially supported the war. Quibbling over details and promising to deliver a world where large French and German forces cheerfully deploy to Iraq and take daily causalities in the place of American troops is campaign silly talk, best reserved for audiences of party regulars with already made up minds and the trained seal’s ability to happily applaud even the most shameless and imbecilic arguments. It won’t wash in a serious debate on a foreign war, which is the campaign battlefield Kerry has foolishly chosen. Kerry’s cynicism masked as honesty will undo him. Worse yet, Kerry’s decision to rhetorically slide into the cheap seats at the United Nations last week and–along with the various aid thieves, despot mouthpieces and Kofi worshippers of the Blame America chorus–raspberry the United States will return to haunt him. Kerry doesn’t just want to re-live Vietnam in his biography; he seems to want to re-experience the 1972 Nixon-McGovern race.
The media’s Kerry comeback will unfold in earnest after this Thursday’s debate. What actually happens in the debate, barring a highly entertaining Tourette’s style meltdown by one of the candidates, really doesn’t matter. This is the first campaign debate in George W. Bush’s career where he has entered with performance expectations, a troubling burden. While I expect the president will actually do well, that expectations game and the comeback narrative will combine, through the media’s funhouse mirror, to put Kerry back in the race. Even though it may ultimately be simply an optical illusion.