I don’t know how much of John Kerry’s acceptance speech the candidate penned himself. I don’t know who suggested which lines, how many drafts there were, or who edited them. But I can tell you who wrote the speech: George W. Bush.
The power of the speech, reflected in a deafening series of ovations that consumed the FleetCenter tonight, came not from Kerry’s biography or the themes he brought to the campaign two years ago. It came from his expression of widespread, pent-up outrage at the offenses of the Bush administration.
First Kerry released the outrage at America’s disrepute around the world. Recalling his boyhood days in West Berlin, he said, “I saw the gratitude of people toward the United States. … I am determined now to restore that pride to all who look to America.”
Explosion of applause.
He released the outrage at the debunked and shifting rationales for the Iraq war. America must be “true to our ideals,” he said. “And that starts by telling the truth to the American people.”
He released the outrage at abuses of executive power. “I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to write our environmental laws,” he said. “And I will appoint an attorney general who will uphold the Constitution.’
He released the outrage at corporate scandal. “Next January,” he said, “Americans will be proud to have a fighter for the middle class to succeed Dick Cheney as vice president.”
He released the outrage at the overextension of the American military, its people, and their families. “We will end the backdoor draft of the National Guard and reservists,” he said.
He released the outrage at the hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit spending in Iraq. “We shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and closing them down in the United States of America,” he said.
He released the outrage at the president’s attempt to end local disputes about marriage by amending the Constitution. “Let’s never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States,” said Kerry.
He released the outrage at the partisan use of God’s name. “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side,” said Kerry. “As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”
Kerry’s Vietnam biography was central to the speech not as a sword but as a shield. It entitled him—and through him, every critic of Bush’s foreign policy who has felt too intimidated to speak out—to repudiate the administration. “That flag flew from the gun turret right behind my head,” said Kerry. “It was shot through and through and tattered, but it never ceased to wave in the wind. It draped the caskets of men that I served with and friends I grew up with. … That flag doesn’t belong to any president. It doesn’t belong to any ideology. It doesn’t belong to any political party. It belongs to all the American people.”
At one point, Kerry acknowledged the Democratic presidential rivals whose pet issues and messages he had appropriated. “Thank you for teaching and testing me,” he said. But those issues weren’t created by the Democrats. They were created by Bush. From deficits to deregulation to Iraq, Bush has handed the Democrats all the issues they need.
The theory behind Bush’s hard-line style of governance came from his chief political adviser, Karl Rove. Rove believed that Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because millions of conservatives stayed home. He believed that Bush’s father lost the 1992 election by alienating the right and creating a Republican primary challenge by Pat Buchanan. So, on issue after issue, the current President Bush has played to his base. On Rove’s theory, every step to the right earns Bush another conservative vote.
That calculation is correct. But it’s only half the story. For every conservative voter who’s inspired to turn out for Bush because of his unyielding conservatism, there’s a liberal voter who’s inspired to turn out for Kerry. That’s why Kerry has had no trouble uniting his party after the primaries. It’s why the FleetCenter exploded tonight at every one of Kerry’s applause lines. And it’s why Kerry can now move aggressively to the middle without fear of losing the left.
In his determination to unite the right, Bush hasn’t just united the left. He has lost the center. Look at last week’s New York Times/CBS News poll of registered voters. “Do you think the result of the war with Iraq was worth the loss of American life and other costs of attacking Iraq or not?” Fifty-nine percent say it was not. “Which do you think is a better way to improve the national economy—cutting taxes or reducing the federal budget deficit?” Fifty-eight percent say reducing the deficit. “When it comes to regulating the environmental and safety practices of business, do you think the federal government is doing enough, should it do more, or should it do less?” Fifty-nine percent say more.
One more Bush voter on the right, balanced by one more Kerry voter on the left, plus the tilting of one more voter in the middle toward Kerry, is a net loss for the president. That’s the lesson of this administration, this election, and this convention. Kerry doesn’t have to write any good lines. He just has to read them.