Was Dean too friendy? Kerry’s stilted manner might just pay off in the primaries

Accessibility carries the stink of defeat of late, a notion that might seem at odds with standard political campaign strategy. After all, free press is free publicity. But recent Democratic candidate behavior has me waiting for someone to cry out, “Yes, yes, I have popular positions, but I assure you I won’t tell anyone.”

Before former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s collapse, “(his) campaign became obsessed with itself, focusing less on the issues and more on the number of supporters signed up on its Web site,” The New York Times reported last week. Dean ignited a generous portion of the Democratic faithful, and the media and his opponents picked up on this. Dean spent countless hours devotedly responding to reporters’ questions. Many journalists remarked that his untiring openness and seemingly off-the-cuff answers were responsible for priceless advertising in the form of everyday, front-page status.

But when small, impulsive slip-ups became larger gaffes, his campaign closed borders and the usual phalanx of reporters became disenchanted, having gotten used to a certain familiarity. Journalists on the left and right reacted by pouncing on him in a giant scrum. He had raised a target on his back, Joe Trippi, his former campaign manager, put it.

Sen. John Kerry’s campaign is wary of Dean’s fate. Having early on recognized that the best strategy might be to limit accessibility initially and slowly open out – his past campaigns have always begun slowly before picking up speed – Kerry, the taciturn nominee, skillfully steamrolled through the initial primaries and caucuses (having won 18 of 20) and has tiptoed among the pages of the major papers.

Kerry’s foremost foibles, as described to most Americans, are an oratorical “woodenness” and a liberal voting record. The Republican National Committee chairman called him the “liberal senator from Massachusetts” – the implication being that, given the state’s other senator, Edward Kennedy, Kerry must be something like a tree-hugging Marxist.

Kerry has not made a major policy speech since last November, as one frustrated pundit recently complained. Instead, by giving responses evocative of “the longest answer I’ve ever heard to a yes or no question,” he has avoided agitating sound bites. Protracted, thoughtful responses come naturally to Kerry, as they should to any prospective commander in chief, but he brandishes them in marked antagonism to a political vetting process that generally rewards brevity.

Americans have too many other things to think about – paying bills, getting the kids to school on time, preparing presentations for work – to remember sprawling social policy positions. Since the advent of televised campaigning, they have favored politicians who make them feel smart, who spoon-feed them lines which can be easily revisited to their friends at the bar.

But now something different is occurring. As columnist David Brooks remarked, primary and caucus voters this year are behaving contrary to dogma: In hope of beating President George W. Bush, they are backing a resume, not a candidate. How else can the erstwhile support for Gen. Wesley Clark be explained? After all, he wasn’t really even a Democrat until months before he announced his candidacy.

Kerry’s stilted, New England manner is in a way serendipitous. It has given his opponents (reporters and columnists included, not just Democratic challengers) something distracting at which to aim.

Post-Gore 2000 complaints of a politician’s stiffness have lost some of their bite and now only the hackneyed observer focuses on them. As a result, good journalists – who seek either to intensify cliched interpretations or explode them – are trolling for other quirks in Kerry’s policy or manner, and a Kerry blunder on the campaign trail might provide just the opening they need. But the liberal, wooden senator from Massachusetts, content to ride a fanatic wave through the Democratic nominating convention and ultimately into the general election, is laboring in long-winded fashion to prevent such a blunder.

Abram Burgher is a clinical fellow in the pathology department. He welcomes comments at [email protected]