By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
This was the real red meat for Democrats — not just re-appropriating the symbols of nationalism and faith for the broader civic religion that Martin Luther King once espoused, but attacking right at the heart of the Lee Atwater–Karl Rove demagoguery that elected two Bushes and that the Republicans hope will sustain the second. Kerry’s speech, like the convention as a whole, didn’t run through the laundry list of Bush’s sins. His strategists read the polls and knew that the American people understood what those sins were and were prepared to reject Bush on account of them. The same polls also showed, however, that they hadn’t embraced Kerry yet, didn’t know how credible he’d be as commander in chief. So they planned instead to make Kerry look every bit as credible as Bush and then some, and to extol a broader form of patriotism that encompasses even dissent. And in this they succeeded.
But Kerry’s speech was just as striking for what it did not do, or even attempt. He offered no overarching vision of what he’d seek to do as president. In part, that’s a reflection on Kerry, who’s led discreet and commendable battles in his years as a legislator — against arctic drilling and exposing Iran-Contra — but never identified himself with a cause or ideology in the manner of, say, his Massachusetts colleague Ted Kennedy. In part, that’s a reflection on Kerry’s consigliere, Robert Shrum, a veteran campaign consultant whose candidates haven’t often had a single unifying theme to their message.
Then again, the domestic platforms of virtually every Democratic presidential candidate this year were very similar, with the exceptions of Joe Lieberman on the right and Dennis Kucinich on the left. All, including Lieberman and Kucinich, proposed, as their top-dollar item, greatly expanding health insurance, and Kerry did make clear that this was his foremost domestic priority. (Also like the other candidates, he vowed to pay for this program by rolling back tax cuts on Americans making more than $200,000 a year.) His program is actually crafted to avoid the kinds of political attack that crippled both Clinton’s program and any suggestion of single-payer, through the miracle of not really creating any new program. Instead, he has the government assume the cost of catastrophic illnesses that employers and employees now cover in the form of higher premiums and deductibles and co-pays. He expands Medicaid to benefit more poor people, and he authorizes the government to bargain with drug companies to bring down costs. No great vision there, but it would go a long way to making health care more affordable for the already-insured and more attainable for the uninsured.
Similarly, none of the Democratic candidates had particularly great ideas for bringing back manufacturing jobs, but then, neither does anyone else who works in or around the American political economy. Kerry, like his fellow Democratic candidates, embraced the Apollo Program, a project devised by a range of unions, enviro groups and progressive think tanks to retrofit buildings, manufacture more energy-efficient public transit and the like. To be funded through tax credits, the project envisions the creation of 3 million decent-paying jobs over the next decade, but even that could not stanch the bleeding of a state like Ohio, much of whose economy has been picked up and exported over the past several decades.
Until the past couple of years, free-trading Democrats have been able to dismiss the problems created by the growth of a global labor market in manufacturing; it simply wasn’t a problem at all, and the stagnation or diminution of American working-class incomes wasn’t even worthy of study. Today, however, those trends threaten to turn the industrial Midwest irrevocably against Bush. Ohio, and all it stands for, has concentrated the party mind, so that the Democratic platform actually reflects the AFL-CIO’s perspective in trade — that all subsequent agreements must make adherence to binding labor and environmental standards a central part of the accord. And so, the Democrats found themselves in unaccustomed agreement on the issue that has divided them most sharply since the mid-1980s.
On domestic policy, then, Kerry had programs but no grand themes. On foreign policy, Kerry had grand themes only — multilateralism, prudence, actually, more abstractions than themes — and no specifics, particularly on Iraq. To look only at the polling, the Democratic base is more opposed to Kerry’s support for a continuing presence in Iraq than it ever was to Lyndon Johnson’s support for the war in Vietnam. But the polling doesn’t measure intensity or trajectory — that for all that divides them on Iraq, Democrats still think Kerry will act rationally there, or in any event more rationally than Bush. Still, a Kerry presidency could in time see major defections in Democratic ranks if he failed to draw down the size of the U.S. force there.
But for now, the Democrats leave Boston as unaccustomedly happy campers. The media have noted the smallness of the Democratic bounce, but the smallness was pre-ordained by the fact that most Americans have already chosen sides in the presidential contest. But what bounce there was is not negligible. The polling makes clear that the public now views Kerry as more credible than Bush as commander in chief, with an advantage over his rival in every area but terrorism, where Bush’s advantage has shrunk to single digits. The polling also makes clear that swing voters are chiefly concerned about the economy, and that has to make Rove and Company more than a little nervous. It’s hard to predict the outcome of an election with an X factor as large as a terrorist attack a possibility, but that said, I still expect Kerry to emerge the victor in November, and by more than five points.