MASON CITY, IOWA—Whatever John Kerry is doing right in this campaign, he isn’t doing it on the stump. At least, that’s my impression after watching him last night. Granted, it was the end of a long day for the senator, who spent much of it flying around Iowa by helicopter, and Kerry is a notoriously erratic speaker. The speech I watched him give had the quality of a rambling answering-machine message—Where is he going? What is he talking about? Will it ever end? But Kerry is the candidate that I’ve seen the least of in person, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe I’ve just never seen him on a good day. If his momentum in the polls is for real, he must be doing something right.
There’s a nugget of a theme in the middle of the speech, where Kerry uses President Bush’s aircraft-carrier “Mission Accomplished” banner (derision of which is a surefire applause-getter in Iowa and New Hampshire alike) as a device to critique President Bush’s domestic policy. “What mission?” Kerry asks. What about the mission to provide jobs for the unemployed, or to alleviate the high cost of prescription drugs, or to help family farmers, or to decrease the number of uninsured, or to clean up the environment? On those counts, “It’s not even mission attempted,” Kerry hollers. “It’s mission deserted! Mission abandoned! Mission not even tried!” (Kerry returns to this theme at the conclusion, when he says Democrats will hang their own “Mission Accomplished” banner when they send President Bush back to Texas.)
In his first 100 days as president, Kerry says, he would issue an executive order that prohibits government officials from working as lobbyists for five years after they leave public life. He vows that every meeting between an official and a lobbyist in his administration would be public record. He makes an eloquent case for providing health care for the uninsured, saying, “Health care is not a privilege for the powerful and the wealthy. It is a right for all Americans.” And he gets the automatic cheers any Democratic candidate gets when he refers to John Ashcroft by promising to “appoint an attorney general who is outside politics” and who will “not pursue a political and a religious agenda.”
The audience doesn’t seem wowed by Kerry, and he isn’t bum-rushed by supporters the way I’ve seen crowds swarm around Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, and to a lesser extent on Thursday afternoon, John Edwards. What am I missing? I wonder. But driving between Dean events today, I hear a radio ad that might provide part of the answer. It supports Ryan Lizza’s theory that Kerry is gaining ground by pushing an anti-tax message. Unlike unnamed other candidates, “John Kerry is not going to raise taxes on the middle class,” the announcer says.
Kerry didn’t directly criticize Howard Dean or Dick Gephardt on Thursday (though the veteran who introduced him did criticize Dean when he compared Kerry’s Vietnam experience to “another candidate” who “asked for a deferment” and then went skiing). But he emphasized tax reform, not just the repeal of the Bush tax cuts. “I’m not looking for some great redistribution” or a “confiscatory” tax scheme, he says. “I’m looking for fairness.” He also promises to “scour” the tax code for provisions that benefit “Benedict Arnold” companies and CEOs who move their assets offshore to escape taxes. Fifteen years ago, Kerry says, U.S. businesses had $250 billion in offshore assets. Today, it’s $5 trillion. “This system is rigged against the average American,” he says. “America is losing its democracy to a dollar-ocracy.”
If Kerry’s lead in the polls is accurate, and if it’s attributable to his message on tax cuts (two pretty big ifs, in my opinion), Dean’s decision to withhold his tax-reform plan until after the Iowa caucuses will be considered a major miscalculation. Instead of betting everything on Iowa and New Hampshire in an attempt to end the campaign before it began, Dean overconfidently decided to keep part of his platform in his quiver, presumably hoping it would have greater impact during a later stage of the campaign.
But what’s bad news for Dean could be good news for the rest of the country. For years, pundits have complained that Iowa and New Hampshire have too much control over the presidential nominating process. This year, most people thought Iowa and New Hampshire would be even more important, because the condensed primary schedule would create unstoppable momentum for the winning candidates. But it looks like Terry McAuliffe’s plan is having the opposite effect: By cramming so many primaries and caucuses into a small part of the calendar, McAuliffe created something much closer to a national primary than ever existed before. Joe Lieberman and Wesley Clark are taking advantage of the new game by staking their candidacies on the states after Iowa and New Hampshire. And if John Zogby is right about John Kerry, Howard Dean may be forced to do the same thing.