Sunday, March 14, 2004

Key for Kerry is to look, act presidential

By Robert Weiner

Now that John Kerry has locked up the nomination, largely sealed by Ohio's Super Tuesday victory over John Edwards, the general election campaign may become the longest political media event in history. However, many media are candidly saying that they will downplay their coverage of Kerry (and thereby the Democrats).

"We'll next cover him in the fall," says one radio network producer, less than half joking. The campaign may be the most covered in history, but Kerry could be perceived as having an irrelevant "political" agenda while George W. Bush conducts meaningful presidential actions. DNC officials are justifiably worried about their side being "blanked while Bush plays president."

The fascinating contest of the nomination is over, from the initial 10 major candidates down to essentially one. The roller-coaster dynamic of the front-runner of the week (Lieberman, Kerry, Clark, Dean, Edwards) has come to a close. The pundits' changing edicts - from "Dean is nowhere" to "Dean has it," from "Kerry is a dead man walking" to Dean's implosion concurrent with Kerry's resurrection and rebirth as the charismatic and knowledgeable candidate he once was and became again - are over.

If Kerry wants to continue having relevance and holding the media's (and the nation's) interest, he can challenge Bush with more than the necessary process of picking a vice presidential mate. He can also do more than the necessary responses to the predictable fast flow of presidential actions and statements. He will have to do more than a speech each week or so timed to issuing a position paper: the media give only minimal space to positions. He must take bold, dramatic actions - something he is now qualified to do as the presumptive nominee - that dramatize his positions.

Kerry makes a point of the need to rebuild our alliances and restore credibility in the international community. He should go abroad and meet with Russian President Putin, French President Chirac, German Chancellor Schroeder, British Prime Minister Blair, Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi, and Chinese Premier Wen, among others. No, he would not be conducting foreign policy; he would just be offering his friendship to key world leaders. It's no different from congressional delegations that meet with foreign leaders all the time. And after each meeting, Sen. Kerry can simply say that he looks forward to renewing America's positive relationship with that nation's government and people. (What he should not do is repeat his recent mistake of asserting that foreign leaders want him to win the election. Keep partisan politics out of it.)

Likewise, at home Sen. Kerry should now meet, individually, with the leaders of every issue, especially the voices alienated by Bush's policies - from fiscal conservatives upset by the massive Bush deficit to unemployed laborers to factory managers whose jobs have been outsourced. He can meet with seniors fearful of both Alan Greesnspan's proposed Social Security cuts and George W. Bush's voluntarizing benefits. He can also meet with seniors denied prescription drugs from abroad. He can talk with community leaders and citizens in newly unregulated environmental problem areas. He should be meeting with people on the edge of everything important to America - visibly, with full open press following any private discussions - labor, business, education, religion, law enforcement, health care, energy, women's groups, state and local governments forced to raise taxes because of the Bush federal tax cuts - and build a consultative process while issuing the positions that generate new directions for the nation.

In other words, Kerry needs to act and be presidential. He must think hard, and build a timeline for March through September if he wants to maintain the base of Americans' desire for change that he has emphasized. The polls that show him ahead of Bush will wither quickly if Bush solely controls the agenda. In the primaries, Democrats brought the public a compelling alternative of national priorities, with which a majority of Americans agree. While Democrats in the past have been in similar poll-leading positions - Dukakis was 17 percentage points ahead of Bush I, for example - some, like Dukakis, have lost. Others, like Carter and Clinton, have won.

John Kerry has a real opportunity - but only if he maintains an agenda that keeps Americans' and the media's interest high.

Weiner is a Democratic public affairs and issues strategist who served for six years in the Clinton White House and 20 years on Capitol Hill as a senior aide to five leading congressional Democrats. Weiner received a bachelor's degree from Oberlin College in 1969.