In the last New York Times poll, 57% of registered voters said that John Kerry has not “made it clear what he wants to accomplish in the next four years as president” (pdf, p. 26). I can’t say I blame them. Granted, it’s very difficult to develop a plan for Iraq, since there are no good options there, and a future president could undermine his negotiating position by broadcasting his intentions. However, John Kerry has plenty of opportunity to say what he would do back home. He has a health care plan, but I’d be surprised if one in a hundred Americans knows what’s in it. As far as I can tell, Kerry never explains it. I realize that most people won’t want to sit through a long lecture on the details of the proposal (nor would the press report such a speech). However, the Democrats could use their health plan–which is by far their biggest domestic initiative–to exemplify their general philosophy of government. Kerry should describe his proposal as innovative and unprecedented, or market-based and efficient, or bold and revolutionary, or cost-effective and moderate, or whatever he imagines it to be. This should then become the hallmark of a general vision for the next four years, of which he should be able to provide more examples.
Since 1900, no Democrat has been elected president without some kind of positive vision, which has combined general slogans and novel turns of phrase with exemplary policy proposals. I don’t believe that the conditions are right for a revolutionary vision like those of Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but Kennedy and Carter were elected on the basis of moderate philosophies and small-scale exemplary proposals.
I see only two ways that Kerry can win in 2004. Either he develops a coherent domestic-policy philosophy within the next 2-3 weeks, or he achieves an unprecedented victory premised only on the need to defeat a failed incumbent. I frankly doubt that the latter is possible.