Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Why Kerry Lost

Much has been said and written on why Senator Kerry lost the election: we've heard everything from Karl Rove's genius (or underhanded tactics, depending on who you ask) to right-wing evangelical voters turning out en masse to oppose gay marriage, to allegations of fraud. Perhaps there isn't a simple answer, but this is one I like:
Mr. Kerry failed because of his inability to tell his own story.
Errol Morris has an op/ed piece in the Times that I think is very well-written.
My guess is that Mr. Kerry and his campaign believed that certain things could not be mentioned. Foremost among these was Mr. Kerry's opposition to the war in Vietnam, which was largely erased from the candidate's life. That was a mistake. People think in narratives - in beginnings, middles and ends. The danger when you edit something too severely is that it no longer makes sense; worse still, it leaves people with the disquieting impression that something is being hidden.

Muting Mr. Kerry's opposition to the Vietnam War had precisely this effect. Remember, this is the man who in 1971 made the following statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"Each day to facilitate the process by which the United States washes her hands of Vietnam someone has to give up his life so that the United States doesn't have to admit something that the entire world already knows, so that we can't say they we have made a mistake. ... We are asking Americans to think about that, because how do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?"
After the 2004 conventions, a New York Times poll asked people whether they felt that the candidates were not being candid about their war records. Many of Mr. Kerry's supporters were mystified that almost as large a percentage of Americans felt that he was holding something back as felt that Mr. Bush was doing the same.

But the polls made perfect sense. Mr. Kerry was holding something back - his real story about Vietnam. And in the end the questions about his service in Vietnam became questions about how he would deal with the war in Iraq. Was Mr. Kerry for it or against it? Questions about Iraq became questions about his candor, and vice versa.

What's disconcerting here is that Mr. Kerry had an out. He could have explained why he went to Vietnam and then opposed the war, and then he could have used this explanation to help people understand why he voted for the Iraq war and then voted against it. His experience with the changing nature of a war could have shifted those critical swing voters, convincing them that he was just the person to lead them at this juncture in our history.
His thesis may or may not be correct, but it's one that I hadn't seen before, and sufficiently interesting to be worthy of consideration. (Admit it, another reason you liked it was because "People think in narratives" made you think of Terry Pratchett - ed. Yes, well, that too, of course.)

1 comment:

Rosh said...

Hey Nitish!

Ran into your blog while surfing ... Interesting site you have here ... Nice to see someone blogging regulary on current issues ... and steering clear from "Dear Diary" kind of entries ... Will be a regular visitor here ...