Thursday, March 04, 2004

The Mike Moment
Remember Mike Dukakis' death penalty moment? In the 1988 debates? When CNN's Bernard Shaw asked him if he'd favor the death penalty for somebody who raped and murdered his own wife, and he answered "no" in a nuanced, footnoted, and, worst of all, passionless way? If riding around in a tank looking like Rocky the Flying Squirrel hadn't already killed his chances of beating Bush the Elder, the death penalty answer did.

John Kerry may have had something like a Dukakis moment in the New York debate last Sunday night. Fortunately, it comes so early in the campaign that it's likely to be forgotten by November--if it hasn't been forgotten already. But should we find ourselves having to write obituaries for the Kerry campaign in October or November, we might be able to look back on this moment as a key indicator, because it points up a problem Kerry and the Democrats have that’s nearly impossible to solve.

The Cronkite of the Right, Matt Drudge, posted an item Sunday night regarding an exchange between Kerry and the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller. She asked him if he thought God was on America's side, and he responded in a nuanced and footnoted way that prompts more questions than it answers. Right-wing columnist and blogger James Lileks examines the implications of Kerry's answer (scroll down to "Love This") and contrasts his answer with other statements from other presidents (including FDR and JFK) regarding God's role in America's destiny.

Religious questions are going to provide the ultimate "gotcha" moments in this campaign. Try as he might, there is no way John Kerry can out-religion George W. Bush. But because Americans care passionately about the religious beliefs of their leaders, and because we live in the most publically pious era since the Second Great Awakening of 160 years ago, Kerry's going to face religious questions repeatedly--and his answers are going to matter more to lots of people than anything he says about deficits and war and health care and education. And because we live in an era when anything less subtle than a bumper sticker is too much for a lot of voters to process, nuanced and footnoted answers aren't going to cut it--despite the fact that an open and progressive position on religious belief can't be explained any other way. Lileks identifies the essential problem with nuance when it comes to matters of religion: "Take these two statements: 'The liberty we prize is not America's gift to the world, it is God's gift to humanity.' [Bush] Or: 'We pray that God is on our side, and we pray hard. And God has been on our side through most of our existence.' [Kerry] Which one best represents the face of America you’d like the President to show to the world?"

Recommended reading: Lileks has raised my blood pressure with his newspaper columns more than once, so he's not a regular read. But he does maintain a section of his website called the Flotsam Project, which is loaded with hilarious pop culture artifacts. One of them memorializes the now-closed Gobbler Restaurant and Motel, located not far from Madison. There is no describing the Gobbler to someone who's never seen it--thanks to Lileks, you can see it here.

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