I was off-line for about three hours this evening. And when I got back to my computer there were a couple hundred emails commenting from various perspectives and viewpoints about the OBL tape that ran this afternoon.
The opinions ranged the gamut, from panic to indifference, many with steadfastness and underlying optimism.
Overall, though, the letters again struck me with what is one of the Democrats' greatest weaknesses: their vulnerability to getting knocked off stride by the rush of events, their tendency to fret that all is lost, almost to indulge in it, when the car hits a simple bump in the road.
Whether this OBL tape represents no-bump, a bump, or something more damaging than a bump, I don't know. But reactions can dictate and shape outcomes, especially in such a context as this where perception is the essence of the matter.
Another way I've noticed this over the years is that Republicans are usually far more confident that their candidates are going to win given races, whether polls give reason for the confidence or not, whether the eventual outcome bears out the confidence or not.
Democrats could use more of that.
Let's look at what is happening right now.
The Bush campaign is trying to use the OBL tape to slap the Kerry campaign around, knock them off their stride, and argue that for Kerry now even to mention anything about the president's failure to bag bin Laden is the height of shamefulness.
The president's communications director even told reporters that the only acceptable thing would be for John Kerry to observe a twelve or more hour moratorium on attacks on the president, even though the president should be allowed to continue attacking John Kerry.
That is what they're playing for. (That's also the reason the Bush campaign didn't allow the Kerry campaign to be briefed on the soon-to-be-released tape until late in the day. The president knew about it early in the morning.)
If the Kerry campaign falls for this it would be the height of foolishness. In itself the bin Laden video is not a matter of controversy. What the president's campaign is trying to do is either goad the Kerry campaign into three days of passivity in the run-up to the election or fuss up a debate about the supposed outrageousness of Kerry's faulting the president for allowing bin Laden to remain at large. The Kerry folks should not play into that trap. The answer is to keep to the game-plan and remain on the offensive.
The foreign policy focus of the Kerry campaign has long been the president's failure to maintain the focus on al Qaida, as evidenced by his failure to capture bin Laden and dismantle his network. To abandon that message now would be insanity.
If you're a Democrat and you notice your fellow Democrats dipping into these spasms of fecklessness and weak-kneedism, as I've described above, I strongly encourage you to slap them around a few times and tell them to get a hold of themselves. If you're experiencing such spasms, by all means, slap yourself a few times and tell yourself the same thing.
More than 95% of the electorate has already made up its mind. This is all about how those last few percentage points of the electorate break. And that will be determined by which campaign holds the initiative, stays on the offensive for the next three days and who can mobilize their forces to win this on the ground.
Kerry, the candidate, must be forward-looking in these final days. But his surrogates should be hammering the president for his failure to capture bin Laden at Tora Bora and pressing the factual case that his campaign has tried so hard to deny. On hitting the indisputable failures of the president there should be no let up.
At every turn, toughness and fight have been the subtext of this election. Who has it and who doesn't. The Bush message is that all of the president's mistakes pale in comparison to the fact of his toughness and steely resolve. The conceit of the Kerry campaign and the Democrats is that they're every bit as tough as the president and his party, and more.
Now's the time for them to show it.