We asked two of our political writers, Doug Ireland and David Corn, to exchange views on whether Kerry is up to the task of beating George Bush. Here are extracts from their e-mail correspondence.
So JFK has now bowed to the polls and the party consensus by pinning a political smile button on his campaign in the person of Edwards. It’s an obvious attempt to make up for Kerry’s huge likability gap in all the polls. And it fits in with the strategy — announced by Kerry’s managers in the Washington Post a couple of months ago — to try to paper a thin layer of populist rhetoric over a pro-corporate economic program. But the toothy Edwards is a one-trick pony with no policy depth, and I’m unconvinced that this is enough to make up for Kerry’s essentially contentless campaign. I’m as desperate to see Bush beaten as you are, and I’ll pull the lever for the twin Johns. But Kerry’s deliberate timorousness has lit no fires among the electorate — and a strategy based on letting events take Bush down while saying nothing to alienate (or attract) voters violates the old adage in poker and politics: You can’t beat something with nothing. Well, as the head of New Jersey’s building trades unions put it, “He’s our rich French guy and we’re stuck with him.” But I’m worried as hell . . .
It is easier to poke at John Kerry the candidate than to promote him. And, as you know, my temperament about political affairs leans toward pessimism. But I am not nearly as worried as you, mon ami. I do not mean to trigger a debate over the half-full-or-half-empty polls, but they do show growing dissatisfaction with Bush and Kerry in a competitive position. But the horse race aside, allow me to address your jabs at the two Johns. Neither has left content aside. Big John talks about raising the minimum wage, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand health care, initiating an extensive program to achieve energy independence, protecting abortion rights, undoing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, and liberating U.S. foreign policy from the “arrogant” and “reckless” ways of Team Bush. This is not revolution, but it is — or would be — progress. And as a policy agenda it is arguably bolder than that of the Dems’ last best hope: Bill Clinton. John the Younger has a good rap on the Two Americas, as you’ve heard a thousand or so times. But within that spiel, he talks about achieving equity in funding of public schools and other real matters. He has pushed for the modest — but better than nothing — Patients’ Bill of Rights. In the Senate, he has raised privacy issues no one else cares about. And he’s been more critical of unrestrained free trade than his Number One. Ultimately, the veep choice makes little difference. (See Señor Quayle.) But these guys can talk substance, if anyone wants to listen. The issue, though, is whether they — Kerry, that is — can connect with the few swing voters left. (Matt Dowd, Bush’s pollster, told me he thinks the undecideds are about 3 percent.) Kerry is no fire-breather, and any connection he forges will not come via the projection of charisma. It will come if he persuades these folks he is serious-minded, responsible, and reliable — which Bush is not. (If calling for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq or decrying the pro-corporate NAFTA-motivated voters, Dennis Kucinich would be preparing his acceptance speech.) Lose no sleep over Kerry’s inability to electrify the electorate. That is not going to happen. He is not that sort of fellow. The question is whether he can sell what he does have to offer. At least Bush has created an opening in the market.
David, my lad,
To overcome JFK’s personality and character defaults, smart strategy dictates sharply defined positions that can mobilize voters. Even Stan Greenberg, the Clintonista pollster, told Borosage’s conference that today “People are looking for a leader that will tackle our problems in a bold way.” JFK is “bolder” than Bubba, you say? Bubba-like triangulations, say I — without Bubba’s charisma.
The economy? To Bush’s simplistic faux-populism of “Tax cuts — they work,” Kerry responds with a plan for more but different tax cuts, thus ceding the ground to the GOP’s “government is the enemy” mantra instead of arguing for a proactive vision, and making future cuts in social spending inevitable by shrinking the tax base, albeit differently than W does. Iraq? You recently wrote that Kerry “has as much of a plan as Bush.” Well, as Joe Biden said the other day, Bush has no plan — and neither does Kerry. Apart from wanting to send more troops, all Kerry can bring himself to say is, NATO-ize the occupation. NATO is riven, many countries already said they won’t participate, and NATO is a Cold War relic of outdated Atlanticism whose expensive existence has been rendered even more unnecessary by the new European Union constitution, which gives the EU a common foreign and defense policy. The Senate Intel report handed Kerry a unique chance to define himself differently from Bush on Iraq — to say, as Jay Rockefeller did, “we would never have voted” for war if we’d known what the report reveals, and announce a speeded-up plan for U.S. withdrawal that conforms with the convention platform plank the platform committee was just forced to adopt by progressives. Israel-Palestine? JFK has been as slavishly pro-Sharon as Bush. He could have used the World Court decision for tearing down the Wall to move to a bolder, more critical stance — instead, Kerry attacked the decision!
Kerry’s campaign strategy reminds me of nothing so much as the Dewey campaign of ’48, which assumed that Truman was so unpopular his opponent need make no waves. The empty vapidness of “Let America Be America Again” — the latest in a series of contentless Kerry campaign slogans — isn’t going to convince the wavering that Kerry has a vision. The notion of Kerry as a waffling Pander Bear, hammered home by Bush’s unanswered spring TV blitz and reinforced by an unending series of Kerry gaffes and pirouettes that weaken turnout by his base (like the one just days ago on abortion, or being against an anti-gay marriage amendment federally but for one in Massachusetts), is firmly implanted in the minds of much of the electorate, as many polls show. Dispelling it will require more than feeble triangulations. And Kerry has no strategy to combat the hot-button GOP strategy of gay-baiting in battleground states like Michigan, where the homo-haters just turned in 500,000 signatures to put an anti-gay marriage referendum on the ballot in November there, as they’ve done already in half a dozen other states so far to encourage turnout by Bush’s base (this is an issue which cuts heavily with Latinos, a whopping 36 percent of whom are for W in this week’s Gallup poll).
Left voices like yours and mine should be pressing for a major course correction by Kerry to win this election before it’s too late.
The political director of a major union tells me that when his shop polled members in swing states it was surprised to find these workers were actually excited by Kerry. Who knew? As much as I would be delighted to see a Democrat support universal health care and a big-spending, jobs-creating program to revive our crappy infrastructure (while not expanding the already grotesque deficit), I am less convinced such a strategy guarantees success. Otherwise — to repeat — Kucinich would be king. And Ralph Nader would have cracked 3 percent last time. As for Iraq, the U.S. is now committed to withdrawing troops by the end of next year, and that’s the U.N. position. I doubt that if Kerry dumped his current stance (try to internationalize the mess and muddle through a problem not of his making) and called for a quick withdrawal (which could lead to civil war and a weak state useful for Islamic terrorists) the American electorate would embrace him. With the release of the Senate WMD report, Kerry has intensified his assault on Bush’s credibility. And since some polls have shown Kerry in the lead and more trusted than Bush, methinks the impact of Bush’s assault on Kerry has not been as great as the Bushies hoped.
“Let America Be America” is silly, but Kerry offers more than slogans, as noted above — even if not all his content is as bold or as left as progressives would prefer. Instead of dwelling on his obvious flaws, I would urge Dems and progs to emphasize the progressive attributes Kerry does possess. Face it: This guy is unlikely to become
bolder in policy or style in the coming weeks.
Any citizen who cares about this land should fret. Kerry may be rated the most liberal senator, but he is no crusader, and he is up against an Evil Empire. That he is still in the hunt has me less worried than earlier this year. Dare I say that on Election Day it might be possible to vote one’s (pro-Kerry) hopes and not just one’s (anti-Bush) fears.
“Kerry Fails To Capitalize on Bush’s Bad Press” was the Boston Globe headline about the new Pew/Rosensteil study. Rosensteil summarized its findings thusly: Voters had an “indistinct” impression of Kerry, and “the only theme that more of the public saw as best describing Kerry rather than Bush was that he was a flip-flopper.” Complacency in the face of Kerry’s hyper-caution will not help defeat Bush. And there’s an old Russian proverb: An optimist is only a pessimist who has not yet heard the bad news.