Pick a Message, Any Message

The New York Times, September 19, 2004
By Leon E. Panetta

Monterey, Calif. — If John Kerry is to win this election, he will have to be much bolder about telling the American people exactly what he will do to make the country better. As a wise colleague in the House of Representatives once told me: voters don’t care so much about what you believe so long as you believe in something.

President Bush has convinced voters that he believes in something even though polls continue to show that a majority believe that he is taking the country in the wrong direction. Mr. Kerry cannot win simply by complaining about where the country is going. He must show that he has a clear sense of what must be done to change course and to make the lives of Americans better in the future.

There is not much time left in this election to make that case. But it is exactly because the American people do not feel good about what is happening in Iraq and in our economy that Mr. Kerry can win if he is willing to take some risks. Presidential campaigns are by their very nature averse to risk-taking. In the 44 days that remain, Mr. Kerry will have to break that pattern to win.

Above all, he needs to be simple and direct with voters. For too long, the campaign has played with too many messages. Mr. Kerry must develop a single, simple, succinct message: “We need a safer and stronger America” might work. Then he needs to stick to it every day.

Mr. Kerry must also forget the past. Too much of this campaign has been consumed by the debate about service in Vietnam and how we got into the war in Iraq. The public has moved beyond these debates. People want to know what the president will do in the future so as not to repeat the mistakes of Vietnam in Iraq.

In making that argument, Mr. Kerry should point out that being stubborn is not the same as being decisive or wise. Sticking to the same policy in Iraq regardless of worsening conditions is wrong. Pushing even larger tax cuts in the face of a weak economy and a huge deficit is wrong.

President Bush says he’s decisive, but refusing to change policies in the face of facts is irresponsible. This election cannot be about who is tougher. It must focus on who is wiser.

Mr. Bush is most vulnerable on two issues – Iraq and the economy. Mr. Kerry needs to confront the president on both, with specific proposals that make clear the stark choices facing voters.

There are no guarantees as to who will win this election and, in the end, national and international events may determine the outcome more than anything Mr. Kerry or Mr. Bush do. And yet, if John Kerry can bring some clear, straight talk to his campaign, not only will he have a better chance to win, but the nation will be the better for it.

Leon E. Panetta, a member of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1993, and Chief of Staff to President Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1997, is director of the Panetta Institute for Public Policy at California State University at Monterey Bay.

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