Covering conventions always puts me in a sort of media bubble -- this one even more since I've been pretty much keeping to myself. But that leaves me with little sense of what the 'buzz' is on the shows and with the major columnists and so forth. And today I realized -- somehow suddenly -- that what had been a congealing sense that the second half of August had been a bad couple weeks for Kerry had turned into a galloping panic that his campaign is in disarray and hope for his candidacy may be close to over.
There are articles about a possible shake-up among high-level staffers, blind quotes from Democratic insiders saying that after a couple more days it may be too late; and I've gotten a slew of emails from readers either asking me if I still think there's hope or ranting that they've had it with Mary Beth Cahill or Stephanie Cutter or someone else.
All I can say is, really, really, shut up and calm down.
Politically, this is one of the worst things about Democrats -- and it has many sources. As a group they seem to have a great tendency toward becoming disheartened, turning on their candidate, doubting his strategy, doubting his advisors, and so forth. Unfortunately, the candidates and advisors have an equal tendency to be open to that kind of fretting. And with the media playing the handmaiden to the synergizing anxiety, the whole thing can become very demoralizing and damaging for campaigns.
Many folks look back and say Al Gore ran a terrible campaign. Maybe. Maybe not. For me, I look back and see something different. I remember a campaign that was far too sensitive to the spin and CW of the moment and thus capable of being buffeted by the smallest political squall. This, rather than any particular tactic or strategy, has always struck me as its greatest failing.
The Bush 2000 campaign was wholly different. They had many reverses. But there was never any serious question that a Rove or a Hughes would get canned. And if there was, the campaign sent out a clear signal that it would never happen. On many levels they were more disciplined.
That difference made a big difference in consistency of strategy and morale among the troops.
If you're a regular reader of this column, you'll know I've been very critical of the rapid-response from the Kerry campaign (wherever it may have gone to) as well as their seeming disinclination to go on the offensive and stay there.
But the difference between the race today and where it was two, three or four weeks ago is still very small. The difference in the national polls is very slight. The last nine major national polls have ABC (tied), ICR (+3 Kerry), Time (+2 Bush), Fox (+1 Kerry), CNN (+2 Bush), NBC/WSJ (+2 Bush), LAT (+2 Bush), NPR (+4 Kerry), IBD/CSM (tied).
(Those numbers are from the graphic on the front page of Pollingreport.com.)
Let me be clear: Those polls tell me the momentum of the race has clearly moved in the president's direction. And some of the state-by-state numbers (like PA, for instance) show that even more clearly. For all that, though, it is difficult to say that Kerry has lost the race when it's not even clear that he's behind.
Again, this is not a Pollyannaish post. The Kerry campaign needs to get control of the debate back from the president. And they need to start hitting much harder. But Democrats themselves need to be a lot tougher and hardier about the cycles campaigns go through. And that applies to self-serving Democratic 'insiders' too.
Discipline pays rewards.