John Kerry addressed the Democratic party after narrowly losing the presidential election of 2004. He did not discuss the lessons we wish he had learned and that he should have shared with his party. Here is an imaginary speech that, if he had given it instead of his unremarkable one, might galvanize the Democrats into not making the same campaign mistakes for a third time in 2008.
To all my disappointed supporters,
I regret I am the second consecutive Democratic candidate to lose what should have been an easy election against a candidate of no substance. I offer my apologies for my mistakes.
My primary mistake was underestimating the fear lurking in the hearts of so many Americans. I spoke in the most sophisticated terms about issues important only to me. Nothing I said, no matter how intelligent-sounding to fellow intellectuals, could overcome the extraordinary appeal of a few well-crafted statements spoken over and over by an opponent incapable of independent thought.
We live in an age alien to most Americans. Terror drops unannounced from the skies. The mightiest army on the planet is gnawed to pieces by an unseen enemy. Our worst danger comes from highly intelligent, highly motivated, highly financed individuals who do not declare war, do not wear uniforms, do not fight on distant deserts well away from civilians, do not respect the Geneva Convention or the Rules of Engagement or the Rights of Men and Women. We live in a world of problems too complex to be understood by reading only headlines, too close to ignore, and too amorphous to offer easy solutions.
As a result, many Americans sought solace in a leader who, rather than solving problems, offered only the reassuring Pabulum, “Trust me and everything will be all right.” Easy answers to complex questions - when most Americans voting for my opponent accepted the palpable fictions that Iraq bombed the Twin Towers, that WMD were found in Iraq, that their President supports the Kyoto Protocols and treaties against land mines and supports restricting nuclear testing and joining the International Criminal Court, and that the rest of world supports our Iraq invasion - when Americans delude themselves to this extent, there must be a powerful reason. And I did not address this reason.
I spent my campaign speaking to voters already committed to me. I spent no time soliciting opinions from the millions who voted for my opponent in 2000. Did I expect they would abandon their folly if blinded by my brilliant analysis of tax apportionment and readjustments of Medicare payments? Did I understand what drove so many Americans to confuse their fear of unseen terrorists into homophobia? Did I reach out to the independents and recovering Republicans who wanted some easily understandable reason not to vote for a moron?
I let my unworthy opponent set the agenda and choose the vocabulary. I blindly accepted his apocalyptic agenda: every issue is a confrontation between good and evil. No gray, no way. I let my opponent seize the high ground on every issue important to voters.
I failed to produce one simple distinguishing bumper sticker. Could any of you explain in twenty five words or less my campaign platform? My opponent didn’t even need ten words, and often distilled them to three. I never called my opponent for perverting the concept of “Family Values.” I never asked which families would be excluded from his blessings because their values were different. I never called his administration’s campaign to “make America the best place in the world to do business” an abomination if it took precedent over “making America the best place in the world to raise your children” or “have your civil rights respected” or “criticize a wartime leader without fear of personal safety.” I never made public that this administration committed the might of the US Army to a prolonged police action without the support any police department deserved. In short, I ignored what the majority of Americans were most afraid of - the Unknown - and blew a sure victory.
This is a difficult realization for me. I can either believe that 55 million voting Americans are too stupid to know what’s good for them, or believe that I was too stupid to understand what was all around me. I fear I was the stupid one. To my disappointed supporters, I encourage you not to follow in my footsteps. Listen to your opposition, do not ignore them. Appreciate the feelings of those who vote against you; do not revile them. Show the majority of Americans who voted contrary to you the same respect you hope they will eventually show you. We must coax the frightened masses of Bush supporters back into the daylight of civility and the Bill of Rights.
We were taught a costly lesson. Let us apply this newfound knowledge wisely.
May God bless the United States, both red and blue.
Steven Kull: The Separate Realities of Bush and Kerry Supporters. October 21, 2004.
Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA), A joint program of the Center on Policy Attitudes and the Center for International and Security Studies at the University of Maryland
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