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Kerry's Painful 2004 Leason: Ignore the Pundits

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It's interesting that when pressed over the weekend by NBC's Tim Russert to note the key misstep from his 2004 presidential campaign, Sen. John Kerry singled out his decision to accept federal campaign funds, in part because the funds came with some stringent strings attached. Kerry now says those strings hindered his ability to battle the Republican attack machine. Specifically, Kerry noted that by having their convention so much earlier than Republicans, Democrats were forced to wage a longer campaign with fewer dollars. Back in 2004 the Kerry camp floated an unorthodox option to get around that problem but when the Beltway punditocracy got wind of the plan it went bat shit, ridiculing the Democrat relentlessly. Within days, Kerry, no doubt responding to the wildly hostile MSM reaction, quietly shelved the idea. It now sounds like he wished he had not.

You might recall that in May 2004, the Kerry camp suggested delaying, by a few weeks, officially accepting the Democratic nomination until after the party's July convention because once that nomination was received, federal law limited how much money Kerry could spend between the time of the nomination and the time of the general election. ($75 million.) The hitch was that the GOP, likely trying to play up the Sept. 11 themes of terrorism, had scheduled its New York City convention later than ever--into the first week of September--which meant that in terms of dollars and cents, the Democrats had to make their $75 million last 13 weeks while the Republicans had to stretch their $75 million over just 8 weeks; advantage Republicans.

"We had the same pot of money. We had to harbor our resources in a different way and we didn't have the same freedom," Kerry told Russert. "I think the most important thing would have been to spend more money, if we could have, on the advertising and responding to some of the attacks."

The 'attacks' being the fictitious charges leveled by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth that Kerry had faked his war wounds in Vietnam in order to win honors and an early ticket home; attacks the MSM amplified for weeks on end and put Kerry in the hole. As I note in my book, the Swifty attacks were nothing more than a charade--a hoax--yet they dominated the campaign press at a time when the Kerry camp was running on fumes, determined to save its war chest for the fall months.

In retrospect, the notion of delaying nomination in order to have more money on hand to respond to GOP attacks looks like a pretty smart one. But at the time, the pundits teed off on Kerry and his plan. It was "silly" "bordering almost on fraud" (Brit Hume), "ridiculous" (David Broder), a "dangerous move" (John Harwood), "the stupidst move that John Kerry could possibly make" (William Safire). The strategy, the pundits cried, "reeks of indecisiveness" (Houston Chronicle) and was a "farce" (Los Angeles Daily News). Here's how CBS's Bob Schieffer played the story: "When I heard that John Kerry may delay accepting his party's presidential nomination until a month or so after its convention in order to get around campaign laws and spend more on his campaign, my question was: Are these people nuts?"

Incredulous talking heads were certain the idea was a loser because it placed too much emphasis on campaign funds and because it looked like Kerry was trying to bend the campaign rules. That's all well and good. But where, during the month of August when the Swifties lobbed their fantastic tales (the confused vets could barely keep their shifting, 35-year-old stories straight), were Broder, Harwood, Hume, Safire, Schieffer and the Houston Chronicle and the Los Angeles Daily News? They all lectured Kerry about accepting the nomination in July and about playing by the existing campaign rules. But when the Swifties tore up the campaign rules, most journalists stood quietly by.

Democrats should take note.