. . . Monday May 3, 2004

On the Fence

I attended a Kerry fundraiser in Berkeley over the weekend, and I thought I’d provide an update from the front lines of the campaign. Well, it was the front line of the campaign at least in terms of the grassroots, houseparty fundraising that has come to define this campaign. It was far from the front line when it comes to where the important votes are. This election is, as everyone has mentioned, about a handful of voters in a couple handfuls of states.

In short, Berkeley is not up for grabs.

First a brief word about my own fundraising attendance strategy. My two friends and I arrived early to stake out some of the few available seats for the outdoor event. We were successful. Although by the time the speakers (including Daniel Ellsberg and Robert Reich) took to the microphone, we realized that we had in fact only managed to secure the rear-most seats in the venue. This was a reprise of sorts for me as in 1981, I spent the night in the Candlestick Park parking lot ahead of a Rolling Stones concert and ended up getting seats in a section that remained unfilled up until an hour before show time.

Between our seats and the speaker’s platform (which turned out to be a rock) stood upwards of two hundred attendees. The crowd was a mix of longtime activists, newcomers to the election process and old school Berkeley progressives (I swore I heard a couple Country Joe and the Fish tunes spinning on an upstairs turntable) who have clearly been re-energized by the Bush administration. There was much talk about the historical importance of this campaign.

And attendees were certainly putting their money where there mouths were. This has been a major trend (and perhaps the major story) on both sides of the political aisle in 2004. There has been much written about the Bush fundraising juggernaut, but the late-starting Kerry has made up quite a bit of ground in recent months. As Dem Chairman Terry McAuliffe explains: “I’ve been doing this [fundraising] for 25 years, and I never expected what I’m seeing today. We have a unified party, a great candidate and an energized donor base. I call it a perfect storm.”

The Berkeley event was no exception. This fairly informal, afternoon house party had already pulled in more than $70,000 midway through the event. (Interestingly, I wrote a check for fifty bucks but then proceeded to eat about $52 worth of items from the impressive buffet table. It’s not totally clear to me how the Federal Election Commission accounts for such cases).

My key takeways from the event:

George W Bush is doing more than enough to energize and focus on the Democratic base on the matter at hand. John Kerry is not.

When we first arrived, we saw two fliers stapled to the wooden fence next to the entrance that led to the backyard event. The first one was an article about how to deal with Ralph Nader’s unwanted run for the White House. The second one was a picture of President Bush with a magic-markered message that this man had to be defeated.

John Kerry has got to get on that fence if undecided voters are going to get off the fence on his side of this election.

Those fliers set the tone for the event, and I think, for the Democratic campaign thus far. The Dems are united against President Bush. And they are well-versed (from the environment to jobs to Iraq to the deficit to education to the “not that bright” factor) on the reasons why W must go.

But what about John? Towards the end of the afternoon, a couple of true believers complained about the Kerry campaign’s lack of clear messaging. One woman indicated that she didn’t really see that big of a difference between Kerry and Bush when it comes to Iraq. A couple of people echoed a complaint that they don’t really have a grasp of what the 90 second overview Kerry’s message is. What do they say to convince people who are leaning towards Bush or who are totally undecided?

Those closest to campaign responded. Kerry has given several long, thoughtful speeches on the Iraq issue and you can find detailed position papers on his website. The distinctions are so clear.

And there’s the rub.

This campaign will not be won with long speeches and position papers. The perfect storm that Terry McAuliffe described, at this point, is only a nearly perfect one. What’s missing is a tight, clear and well-defined Kerry message. Even the handouts at the event I attended featured multi-sentence quotes.

One can complain that the distillation of American politics into a few catch-phrases, soundbites and snappy comebacks represents everything that’s wrong with the electoral process. But the customer is always right and that’s politics.

And John Kerry will be one element short of a perfect political storm until his most ardent backers realize that the refrain What is the message of this campaign? is not an essay question.

Concentration is important!