Thursday, September 09, 2004

Formula for winning the White House: Be cool. Don't be the Other Guy.

I'll be glad for many reasons when election season is over, not the least of which is so that I can stop filling this blog with quasi-political ramblings and get on with more fun stuff. But right now, the race for the Presidency is like beef: it's what's for dinner.

I don't know whether the new documents that purport to reveal various peccadilloes committed by one Lt. George W. Bush back in the Age of Superfly are legitimate or not. But I've thought all along that this issue is a non-starter. Suppose Little George did get help from friendly fatcats in avoiding combat service, and did skip out on some classes, assignments, and physical exams when he was in the National Guard. What kind of person were you 30 years ago? I'd hope we've all changed, grown, and learned a thing or two since then.

I'm not justifying anything Bush may have done that he shouldn't — you know me better than that. I'm just saying that it was 30 years ago. The accident's over, people. Nothing to see here. The same applies to all the Swift Boat malarkey about Kerry. Give it a rest. Today's a new day. Let's focus on the here and now, and look from here to the future.

Speaking of Kerry, his real problem right now is superficial, but simple: he's just not cool. Cool is critical. Cool is one of two ways you get to be President. His other problem is that he has to avoid becoming the Other Guy — whoever is the popular whipping boy of the day. Think I'm kidding? Let's look at the Presidents who've held office in my lifetime, and why they won election:

• Kennedy '60. Cool as the other side of the pillow. As several women not his wife who shared that pillow could probably attest.

• Johnson '64. Not the Other Guy. Remember: Vote for Goldwater and the little girl gets nuked.

• Nixon '68: Not the Other Guy. The Other Guy was the specter of a criminally unpopular LBJ, personified by the sitting Vice President, Hubert Humphrey.

• Nixon '72: Not the Other Guy. This time, the Other Guy was that Commie McGovern. Nixon was a master at not being the Other Guy, or at least making the Other Guy seem like an infinitely worse choice.

• Carter: A little of both. He had that aw-shucks good ol' boy vibe going on — which other President ever inspired a sitcom about his hometown? And he wasn't the Other Guy who pardoned Tricky Dick.

• Reagan: The King of Cool. Personally, I think the man was a dimwitted fraud, but you can't argue with the love and devotion he inspired in people.

• Bush 41: Not the Other Guy. All it took was one picture of Michael Dukakis looking like Snoopy the World War I Flying Ace in the turret of a tank. You can't be dorky and be President. We will forgive the leader of the Free World many sins; dorkiness is not one of them.

• Clinton '92: Not the Other Guy. By the time November 1992 rolled around, you, I, and any of a dozen of our closest personal friends could have been elected President. Everyone just wanted dull, dorky, incompetent King George I to beat feet to Kennebunkport, and not let the White House door smack him in the patoot on the way out.

• Clinton '96: Cool. By now, we really liked the big lug.

• Bush 43: Who cares? He didn't really win anyway. I'm sorry — that's a copout. Bush in Y2K was the second coming of Jimmy Carter: a little hillbilly cool combined with an Other Guy who came off as stiff, robotic, and humorless.

Between now and November, John Kerry has to overcome two key challenges: (1) he's not cool — at all; and (2) most people don't hate Bush enough yet for the Other Guy Syndrome to sufficiently offset Kerry's inherent dorkiness.

There's only so much Kerry can do to combat these issues. The Cool Factor is tough; the guy is what he is, and cool he isn't. He can try to substitute by making the cool people at his disposal more prominent in his campaign. Unfortunately, Clinton's rehabbing from open heart surgery and won't be a major factor on the campaign trail. Kerry's already added John Edwards, who seems pretty cool, as his running mate. (Problem is, no one gives a rat's spit who the running mates are. If that weren't true, Dan Quayle and Dick Cheney would have kept Bush elder and younger from ever darkening the carpet in the Oval Office, and Lloyd Bentsen would have won the Presidency for Dukakis.) Most of the other cool Democrats — the Hillary Clintons, the Barack Obamas — aren't positioned to generate much juice. And, to be honest, the Democrats don't have many people in prominent roles right now who are cool. That's why John Kerry is the nominee.

So, even though he's ducked this as long and as hard as he can, Kerry has to make Bush the Other Guy. He needs to start hammering home the image of 1,000 dead Americans in Iraq, while Osama bin Laden — who, unlike Saddam Hussein, has actually shown the means and the willingness to attack the U.S. on our home soil — runs free. He needs to plaster the $422 billion deficit figure on every available billboard. He needs to count aloud the jobs that have been lost since Bush took office. He needs to look every American squarely in the eye and ask the question: How many more of your sons and daughters do you want to sacrifice on the altar of this man's ego?

More than anything, he needs to hurry up. The election is less than two months away.

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