The battle for the White House looks a lot like class war when union leaders call Bush an SOB, and the Bush administration lets corporate lobbyists rewrite the laws governing U.S.-style capitalism. But in an infrequent swing through California last week, impending Democratic nominee John F. Kerry called a truce — not with Bush, but with the business class.
In San Jose, Kerry literally embraced Lee Iacocca, that old warhorse of capitalism, while also insisting to Silicon Valley execs that he’s their candidate, too. The goal was partly to use California as a campaign ATM. Kerry succeeded richly in that — a Disney Hall concert by Barbra Streisand and friends contributed to a haul of more than $8 million. But then, President Bush also hits pay dirt, with a different crowd, when he goes California prospecting.
Between check-writing events, Kerry made a different pitch, namely that he’d be good for business — better than Bush. And that he shouldn’t be confused with the Senator John F. Kerry who thundered anti-corporate themes to unions both before and after the Silicon Valley appearances.
But what about that other John Kerry, the anti-business replicant?
Later in the day, that Senator Kerry told amped-up union-eers in Anaheim that he’d make it easier to form unions and that he’d fight the corporate greed of Big Pharma by allowing Americans to import drugs from Canada. And “I will fight for a prescription-drug benefit that puts seniors ahead of big drug companies in America,” Kerry thundered to national delegates of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). He also pledged to end corporate tax breaks for the likes of Enron, Exxon and Halliburton.
But apparently not all magnates are created evil. In their joint appearance at San Jose State, Kerry called former Chrysler CEO Iacocca “an American icon, one of the great business leaders of the United States, one of the great innovators.” It isn’t clear which sobriquets would apply had Iacocca endorsed Bush instead. Iacocca had endorsed Bush in the 2000 campaign, even cutting commercials on his behalf. And Iacocca campaigned for Ronald Reagan in both 1980 and 1984.
Iacocca never said in his speech why he soured on Bush, who, give the man credit, has been all about giving the wealthy and mega-corporations what they want. Bush cut taxes for the richest Americans. He eased clean-air restrictions that could have cost factory owners billions. He advocated expanded drilling for oil companies. And don’t forget that the Iraq war has moved billions of taxpayer dollars into corporate coffers through government contracts — a boon for defense contractors, and security services as well as other private contractors and individual entrepreneurs, if they have no fear of death. More new jobs there, too.
Iacocca explained his disenchantment in a brief one-on-one after the Kerry event. “I was so against the Iraq war, so mad about the war, I couldn’t see straight,” said Iacocca. “And I don’t need a tax cut. I’m a wealthy man. And budget deficits do matter. I wrote a book on that. I don’t see how Bush can cut taxes like that without the revenue coming in. I mean, what’s he going to cut? I mean, you could decide not to go to Mars, but other than that . . . I’m also concerned about health care.”
Iacocca looked convincing as elder statesman. “I have two great causes left in my life,” he said in his public remarks. “One is to find a cure for diabetes. I’ve been working on it for about 21 years now, and believe it or not, we’ve had a couple of breakthroughs. We’re getting closer, really. The other is to change the direction of my country.” Which meant, he said, endorsing Kerry.
“All of my best friends are Republicans,” noted the 79-year-old Iacocca, “and they ask me, ‘Are you crazy or something? Why are you doing this?’ Well, it’s simple. I tell them the world is changing . . . And we need a leader who understands that change that’s taking place . . . We need a leader who is really dedicated to creating millions of high-paying jobs all across the country.”
So there is, after all, a business rationale for a rich person or a major corporation to prefer Kerry over Bush. To wit: Bush’s wars and his deficits, and his inadequate response to a health-care crisis, are hurting American commerce.
Those were exactly the sort of points Kerry tried to drive home. But he also added some proposals. The most concrete was to cut the capital-gains tax to zero on long-term investments in small startups.
“Many of today’s technology giants started out as a thought in a graduate student’s head,” said Kerry, “and grew out of garages and basements where the spark of an idea ignited an entire new industry. Startups drive technology job creation, and they usually have big ideas but small capital.” Eliminating this capital-gains tax would encourage more investors to risk their money here, even in the wake of the dot-com crash.
For its part, the Bush camp would be only too pleased to one-up Kerry on virtually any tax cut. And Bush’s team immediately dug up instances in which Kerry had tried to block cuts to the capital-gains tax or sought its increase.
Kerry’s current proposal does, in fact, embrace a tax increase. Kerry would offset the one cut by restoring the
higher pre-Bush capital-gains tax in other categories, something he strategically omitted from his presentation. But backstage, his staff argued that compensating for a tax cut with revenue elsewhere shows how their candidate is more fiscally responsible.
Kerry’s deeper point is that there’s more to helping the economy than passing tax cuts that most directly benefit the wealthy. Kerry noted that Federal Express and Intel benefited from government-loan guarantees in their early days. And it was a small government-funded project that led to the Internet itself: “Some say we can’t afford to fund curiosity. I say how can we not afford to fund curiosity?”
He added, “I will be a president who actually believes in science.” Long applause greeted that one. “Without a moment’s hesitation, with the proper ethical guidelines, I will reinstate [a] national commitment to stem-cell research.”
Kerry and Bush both pledge to link every corner of America with high-speed Internet. Kerry compared it to FDR’s rural electrification project. One benefit of this modern broadband equivalent, said Kerry, would be allowing rural breadwinners to telecommute, preserving the sanctity and values of the small-town homestead.
Bush has said he’d have the job done by 2007. Here it was Kerry’s turn to one-up, setting the end of 2006 as his time frame.
In this, Kerry suffers from a uniquely Democratic form of one-upmanship. If Bush promises jobs, Kerry will promise more jobs. He also promises more money for schools, more comprehensive (and more expensive) health-care reform. And more money for AIDS, more resources for Homeland Security and crime fighting. Kerry frequently pays for this more, more, more with two devices: repealing the tax cuts for the wealthy and ending corporate tax loopholes.
But it’s hard to see how he keeps his promise to do better than Bush at lowering the deficit, if he’s simply redirecting the Bush tax cuts from the pockets of the well-heeled into expanded government programs.
The other solution, closing tax loopholes, remains a popular chestnut, but it resembles Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s promise to end California’s budget woes by targeting “waste, fraud and abuse.” It rarely ends up being that quick or easy.
Which creates a credibility gap for the Democrats as well as Bush when talk turns to cutting the record budget deficit that Bush has amassed.
Bush and Kerry share a particular challenge in this election: They must appeal to the masses (where the votes are) as well as those with masses of money (which is what funds campaigns). Bush inspires much of his non-rich core with homilies about values, about defending marriage and about banning abortions. Kerry’s in the trickier position of making an economic argument to prosperous and poor alike — even as the economy is looking up for some in the middle class. At the upper end, Kerry has to persuade corporate honchos to ditch an incumbent president whom they might well consider already bought and paid for. The Bush campaign retains its own list of endorsing CEOs, including Michael Dell of Dell Computer, Meg Whitman of eBay and John Chambers of Cisco.
Organized labor has no doubt which party’s side it’s on, because it’s concluded which side Bush belongs to. “In the past three and a half years, we’ve seen a more anti-worker, anti-union administration than any in the last 50 years,” said John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, America’s largest labor federation. He’d just heard Kerry address the Service Employees International convention in San Francisco, and he’d joined in the rhythmic clapping to cheer Kerry on. As for the Bush administration, “We had our fears about how bad it would be, but it’s been worse than we anticipated. It appears that there’s a real war on workers and their families.”
SEIU announced plans for its 50,000 members — low-wage workers, including janitors and home health workers — to make 7 million phone calls, distribute 6 million fliers, work 165,000 full days and knock on 10 million doors on Kerry’s behalf.
It was a Sweeney lieutenant who called Bush an SOB in her speech to delegates. And she didn’t mean “Son of Bush.” And the union faithful were dubbed “corporate America’s worst nightmare.” The next day, in Anaheim, a union delegate gave Kerry’s hand a hearty shake while telling him to “kick Bush’s ass.”
The prose was purplish enough to make Dick Cheney blush — or to make him sharpen his own class-war spear.