No Bush-bashing, the memo said. No way, some Democrats replied.
Eager to take President Bush head-on, they have found the convention’s go-positive strategy easier to understand than to heed.
Donna Brazile is one. Al Gore’s former campaign manager received written instructions from John Kerry’s campaign to keep the nominating convention focused on the candidate, not the Republican incumbent.
“Being a Christian woman, I called them and said, 'Lord, have mercy, I cannot hold my tongue. What am I going to do?”’ she said.
Bite your tongue, she was told.
Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano laughed at the thought. “She must have calluses,” the governor said.
They were not the only Democrats champing at the bit, struggling to walk that fine line between going too hard on Bush and being too soft.
“Let Kerry and Edwards be the good cops,” Rep. Jesse Jackson, D-Ill., told Louisiana delegates. “But we’ll be fighting in the streets.” Later, Jackson said he was talking about political warfare waged on behalf of Kerry and running mate John Edwards.
Bringing that fight indoors would upset Kerry’s image machine, including a team of writers who rounded off the rough edges of every convention speech:
- Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., denounced “this misguided war in Iraq.” Not quite like calling it “fraud made up in Texas,” as Kennedy did 11 months ago.
- Former Kerry rival Howard Dean spoke of a foreign policy “that relies on telling the truth to the American people.” He did not mention Bush by name nor directly accuse him of lying, diplomatic niceties that Dean has never before extended to the incumbent.
- Al Gore, who once said Bush had “twisted values and atrocious policies” on Iraq, mildly accused the president of “confusing al-Qaida with Iraq.”
It was all part of Kerry’s strategy to appeal to independent voters, most of whom tell pollsters they’re turned off by negative politics.
Attacking the president would galvanize the 4,000-plus delegates in Boston and hard-core Democrats elsewhere. But Kerry’s team has determined that the base is already united against the White House. What’s needed are the independent undecideds.
The strategy received mixed reviews from the delegates.
“There’s just no venom, no spewing,” Tim Sullivan of Wisconsin said. “We can deliver the same message, just not come across as vile.”
“I’m a little uncertain about the tactic,” said Rod Halvorson of Minnesota. “I think it’s important to draw the strong distinction between George Bush and John Kerry.”
Many delegates said they understand Kerry’s rationale, even if they can’t always abide by it.
“We’re trying to be more positive because I see a trend that people are not tolerable to negative campaigns,” said Craig Bland, a state lawmaker from Missouri.
As for Brazile, she told Louisiana delegates all the reasons why they should help elect Kerry. Then, while leaving the room, Gore’s former aide said the harness comes off with the sounding of the closing gavel.
“Three more days,” she said, “and I’m free.”