Nurse Pat Beane presents a near perfect crucible for the 2004 race for president. It starts with her location, in Ohio’s Stark County, where voters have correctly called the last nine elections, back to Richard Nixon. She is watching, waiting, for the appearance of the Democratic presidential hopeful in the trussed-out girls’ gym of Perry High School, “Home of the Panthers,” where banners proclaim, “A Stronger Economy for America’s Workers.”
Beane voted for George Bush in 2000, tired of the moral turpitude she perceived in the Clinton White House. Bush impressed her as a man of decency and upright personal values. Four years later, she now says of Bush: “It’s not his character; it’s his choices.”
Kerry has a shot at her vote because of her unexpectedly less rosy world. She’s on strike with fellow nurses from Akron General Medical Center. The rising cost of health benefits could more than cancel out proposed raises. Pension-benefit reductions also are on the table.
“We’re taking care of people’s lives every day,” she says, “and we can’t even get decent health care.” Also, two grandchildren, who have serious, ongoing health problems, are about to lose government-subsidized health coverage in a round of budget cuts.
“And why should we go to another country and fight their war when there’s poor people in town?” adds the 56-year-old nurse. “My plan was to retire at 60. Now, it looks like I’m going to be working till I’m 70.”
She blames Bush.
So far, so good for the Democratic nominee.
John F. Kerry finally gets the nomination when the Democrats gather in Boston. And if all goes as scripted, one four-letter word will be repeated again and again, and it won’t be the one Dick Cheney likes so much. Kerry’s four-letter word is jobs.
Kerry’s recent speeches have used the J word endlessly, especially when the Weekly followed him blow by blow on a recent swing through the West and Midwest. It came up when he spoke to union gatherings in San Francisco and Anaheim, among high-tech donors in a Silicon Valley museum and with Lee Iacocca at San Jose State University, in front of Latinos in Phoenix and before Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Chicago, and, of course, in economically battered Ohio.
This central campaign theme should ring familiar. Remember in 1992, when Bill Clinton’s handlers coined the phrase “It’s the economy, stupid,” so he’d never forget the club he wielded to defeat the first George Bush?
Ronald Reagan also used bread-and-butter economics against Jimmy Carter in 1980, asking famously: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Kerry has appropriated the bromide word for word, giving full credit to the Gipper.
Kerry was flying solo when he spoke at Perry High, but Kerry’s first joint appearance with VP nominee John Edwards also was in the Buckeye State, a key swing state, which has lost about 200,000 jobs since Bush beat Gore there in 2000. Stark County, where Kerry was talking, has lost about 12,000 jobs, about 5,000 in the last few months. Kerry’s been in Ohio about a half-dozen times since winning the March primary.
“I am here running for president to put America back to work,” Kerry says at the June “Town Hall” at Perry High, which is near Canton, Ohio. “If you thought of the United States as a car, Ohio is the engine, and if you want to think about this particular area, this is the driver’s seat.”
Jobs and the economy have been a consistent Kerry theme, even as he also tries on various messages, like a bargain hound grabbing suits at a discount clothing outlet. In the Kerry campaign there exists an ongoing tension between pursuing something vital and sticking with what’s politically safe. It’s the √ľber-narrative of the Democratic Party itself in recent times and a recurring dynamic in John Kerry’s career. Kerry supporters would argue that it’s justifiable to do whatever’s politically necessary to win this, and principled policy can follow.
A focus on jobs — and the job losses under George W. Bush — might get him over, especially if it remains true that Bush is the only president other than Herbert Hoover to oversee a net loss of jobs. The strategy also allows Kerry to segue into the adjacent crisis of health insurance — which most people get through work.
Kerry, the campaigner, pushes a view of economics that is simplistic and not entirely on point. Much of his ongoing critique depends on the state of the economy now — and this fall, when voters head to the polls. Sporadic and selective though it is, a sort of economic boom began about a year ago, lifting spirits and fattening wallets in some sectors and in some states. Election-year Kerry-nomics offers little that’s concrete to address long-term conundrums where the next president ought to be making a difference, namely, the ballooning federal deficit and the looming Social Security shortfall.