By E.J. Kessler

Published December 10, 2004, issue of December 10, 2004.
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Election Dissection: Democrats must formulate much stronger national security and anti-terrorism positions and language if they expect to win the trust of American voters, a number of analysts and party operatives said at a post-election symposium December 3.

“The public simply doesn’t trust us to keep them safe,” said Democratic strategist Jim Jordan at the Washington conference, which was sponsored by the University of Virginia Center for Politics and the National Journal’s Hotline. “We were dragged down by an enduring, if in large measure true, negative stereotype” that the party is too dovish.

The idea that national security drove the election was echoed by USA Today reporter Susan Page, who said that before the election her newspaper did focus groups on the economy in which the participants “kept coming back to terrorism,” including one person who said, “If you’re dead, it doesn’t mater how much money you’re making.”

If the Democrats lost, it was because their stances on the war on terrorism and the Iraq war, such as John Kerry’s vote not to fund a supplemental $87 billion for Iraq, “became very much a values question,” in the words of Bush-Cheney ’04 spokesman Steve Schmidt. That vote, Schmidt said, taken as anti-war candidate Howard Dean gained in the polls, allowed Republicans to paint Kerry, and by extension his party, as soft on defense and lacking core principles. “We were always able to come back to that vote and say that [Kerry] would do the politically expedient thing.”

The conference, which sought to bring together campaign advisers and journalists for a behind-the-scenes look at tactics, strategy and the role of the media, provided its share of never-before-told tales. Kerry adviser Mike McCurry, for example, said it was not only the press, but also the campaign itself, that was bamboozled by early exit polls that showed Kerry winning the race. He said that at one point during the night, Kerry’s senior speechwriter, Bob Shrum, took the candidate aside and said, “Let me be the first to call you Mr. President.”

Meanwhile, Chris LaCivita, an adviser to Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, disclosed that Fox News Network — often derided as shills of the Bush campaign — actually turned down three Swift Boat ads against Kerry as “too negative.” Other networks were happy to run the pieces.

Dotty Lynch, the senior political editor of CBS News, said that during the scandal over a “60 Minutes” broadcast based on forged documents about President Bush’s national guard service, the Bush campaign “became nicer. It was odd.” Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie went on CBS Evening News in what was “an important piece of rebuilding our credibility with the public and our channels of communication,” she said.

Participants also were asked to identify Kerry’s biggest mistake.

“Not hitting back at the Swift Boat ads as soon as it happened,” said USA Today’s Page. His remark on the $87 billion that “I voted for it before I voted against it,” Bush fund-raiser Jack Oliver said. “Not apologizing for calling [Vietnam] veterans ‘war criminals,’” LaCivita said. The fact that Kerry “never said anything memorable,” said Eleanor Clift, a Newsweek analyst.

A panel on the future of the Democratic Party evinced much worry. “We shouldn’t be beguiled by the closeness of the election,” said Rep. Brad Carson, who ran unsuccessfully for Senate in Oklahoma. “A tactical reorientation is not going to help us. It requires a strategic change. A Republican pollster came to me and said, ‘The good news is that [your opponent Tom] Coburn is running 45 points behind Bush. The bad news is that President Bush is at 90%. Kerry took 12%-15% [in some rural Oklahoma counties]. That shows a systemic problem with the brand image.”

Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman said it was important that “voters who made a late decision felt more comfortable in the Bush space.” He added, “The people who have talent to win elections are on the Republican side. We need a change in our look, in terms of the people who talk to the voters.”

Strategist Steve Jarding, who has managed many Southern races, said that the Democrats “essentially wrote off 20 states” because “we didn’t spend money or have a message in these regions,” which does not bode well because those regions constitute some of the fastest-growing areas of the nation.

Another issue in question for the panel was the efficacy of the Democratic 527 organizations, the private political organizations funded by big donors such as George Soros, to which the Democrats outsourced much of their field operations. While the Democratic groups exceeded their targets, they did not trump the efforts of the Bush-Cheney team’s volunteer-driven operations.

Jordan, a one-time Kerry campaign manager who is an adviser to America Coming Together, a get-out-the-vote 527 organization, said of that effort, “It’s never comfortable to say, ‘the operation’s a success, but the patient’s dead.” Ground operations don’t win or lose presidential campaigns but “there are very many candidates in office because of ACT… beyond a doubt, where we were active, Democrats did much better.”

But Jarding countered that the backers of the 527s inevitably would be evaluating how much return they got for their money. “Soros and Peter Lewis gave $27.5 million, and we switched New Hampshire,” he said, adding, “that’s a big chunk of change.”

Several of the panel said the party had to rearticulate the basics of its governing philosophy. According to Democratic National Committee official Donna Brazile, Republicans up and down the ballot prosper from the notion that their party is clearly identified with tax cutting, traditional morality and strong defense. Democrats, she said, must stress that they are the party of “shared responsibility” and “shared opportunity.”

“Liberty, opportunity, prosperity,” she said, identifying three concepts that could make a difference.

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