Why Conflicted Voters Will Go for Bush


Oct. 26, 2004 -- -- Forget the tracking polls and micro-analysis of a handful of targetedstates. Our political history provides a pretty clear clue as to why conflictedvoters will break for Bush in the closing days of the 2004 campaign.

Americans almost never choose a sitting legislator as leader of the freeworld.

We've done it just three times: James A. Garfield in 1880, Warren G. Harding in 1920 and John F. Kennedy in 1960. They all died in office and combined served only five of 216 years of the presidency.

Three out of 43 is no historical fluke. But Washington insiders, both politicians and the press, never seem to get it.

Every four years, several legislators announce for commander in chief,despite the historically bleak prospects. Establishment media tout themas front-runners, citing the same myopic vision of "electability" astheir political counterparts: federal experience, national stature (read that,"men we often quote"), and the ability to show big numbers on FederalElection Commission reports.

Those who get it a little usually cite "long voting records" as a liability for congressmen, or that "they only vote, they don't run anything." Both are part of the electability problem. But the main reason sitting legislators need not apply for commander in chief is deeper.

Every day in those few square blocks of surreality known as Capitol Hill,legislators are turning verbal somersaults to convince the NationalAssociation of This and the American Council of That they're on boththeir sides. Staking out a clear-cut position pays no dividends forlegislators, whose constitutional job is Madisonian compromise.

Members of Congress don't have beliefs. They have positions -- finelytuned positions.

They live in the transactional world of legislation, poorly preparingthem for the transformational aspirations of presidential leadership.

Legislators like John Kerry don't know how to speak in simple,declarative sentences. They know how to talk to organized interests. Governors,who we usually elect, have to know how to talk to people, to build publicsupport for governing agendas.

The impulse of congressmen is to build deniability not just into everyspeech, but every syllable. Listen to five minutes of John Kerry, andyou know he's never met a nuance he didn't like.

After the GOP convention, I asked my 85-year-old mother if she hadwatched President Bush. "No," she nearly admonished me, "I can't stand to lay eyes onhim."

Well, how about Kerry? Without hesitation, she said: "I guess he'd bebetter than Bush ... [but] I can see right through him."

When Republicans started using the have-it-both-ways attack last spring,they didn't have to be any smarter than chimps to come up with thatstrategy, nor was it necessary for voters like my mother to be sophisticated political analysts for it to resonate.

As I tell my students in explaining successful political communication,"You can only reach voters where they're capable of believing." Youcan't make up big charges out of whole cloth.

Persuadable voters and other non-haters of President Bush were easilyable to comprehend the GOP line, because it fit hand in glove with thelargely biographical campaign Kerry himself was waging: "For the war inVietnam. Against the war in Vietnam."

Every time Kerry campaigned on his Vietnam past, and every time heresponded to charges about what he did or didn't do three decades ago,undecided voters were reminded of an undecided man. The power of the"Swift Boat" non-issue was not to plant doubts about whether Kerrydeserved his medals. It was to remind voters to wonder how decisive he would bein running the country in time of war.

Kerry is likely to join scores of history's other presidential wannabes who failed to cleanse themselves of their congressional-ness before seeking the White House.

Recall that Bob Dole tried to do it on the cheap in 1996, by resigninghis Senate seat just five months before the general election.

Republican strategists took the man out of the Senate. But theycouldn't take the Senate out of the man.

Director of the Washington Center for Politics & Journalism and itssemester-in-Washington program for college journalists the past 16years, Terry Michael is a former Democratic National Committee, congressionaland presidential campaign press secretary.

This work is the opinion of the author and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.

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