PHOENIX — Here in the triple-digit dog days when at times you can literally fry an egg on the asphalt, a couple of dozen fearless volunteers are going door to door in the southern, Latino quadrant of this desert metropolis, methodically registering new voters. The young canvassers — backed by labor and church groups — call themselves the New American Freedom Summer. But unlike their 1964 namesake that battled the Klan and the cops to defend the gallant cause of civil rights, these young volunteers are trudging through the infernal heat for — ultimately — a much less glorious, infinitely more mundane task — electing John Kerry as president.

In fairness, Arizona is also facing a noxious anti-immigrant ballot measure, and the Freedom Summer volunteers are crucial in galvanizing the vote against it. All in all, even after last week’s Democratic convention, that will be a much easier sale than cranking up proactive enthusiasm for Kerry.

The Kerry campaign is targeting this state, along with Nevada, New Mexico and Colorado, as key battleground swing states that could make or break the winner on Election Day. The stakes are huge. But the message remains Clintonian in its modest scope: “It’s all about security issues,” says a top official in the Kerry Arizona campaign. “Personal security, national security, economic security.” Missing from the agenda: peace. Or, at least, some sort of withdrawal plan from Iraq. “The war’s an issue, for sure,” says the official. “But it’s kind of an overarching thing, a backdrop, it’s not about a specific plan.”

No surprise here. So all the progressives who have been loyally tailing Kerry for the last year, fretting over his program, pushing him, cajoling him, rationalizing for him, suggesting speeches he could make and so on ad nauseam, well, you now have my permission to take the rest of the campaign off: Kerry doesn’t really care for your gratuitous suggestions. He is not going to run to the left, he is not a progressive populist, he is not going to “take back America,” he’s not going to call for an immediate withdrawal of troops, he’s not going to try to significantly expand the voter base downward and outward. Nope. He’s going to do what Democrats always do. Move as far to the right as he can and woo that 5 percent to 8 percent moderate swing vote still out there, concentrated in places like, well, this state of Arizona.


And why shouldn’t he? What evidence is there that running to the left, as pleasing as it might be to me personally, is the key to success in November? Just repeating over and over that favoring a “bold progressive agenda” is the way to beat Republicans doesn’t necessarily make it true. Isn’t that what Dennis Kucinich did to win himself about 4 percent of the “Democratic” vote?

But if it is true, just exactly what leverage has the anti-war and progressive left brought to bear on Kerry? Early on they ceded the leadership of their street protests to a radical fringe far outside the Democratic Party, rendering the demonstrations irrelevant. Where were the big demos during the DNC? What conditions did “peace delegates” ask for in exchange for supporting Kerry? Big Labor has come out against the war, but the $65 million in union funds directed toward Kerry have no strings attached. For a full week the thousands of DNC participants cooperated in staging a neat little fiction: that a profoundly anti-war party base was cemented with “unprecedented unity” to a top ticket that had voted for the war and that still vows — with minor nuances — to stay the course.

So the decision is firmly in: Kerry is not running as the peace alternative. He’s running as the more effective war president. In case you didn’t notice, it wasn’t exactly a Code Pink event up there last week when Kerry gave his acceptance speech. Not with all the military brass that preceded him onstage, not with the good-old-boy vets from the Swift Boat in their Dockers and polo shirts, not with Kerry’s opening salute reporting for duty, nor with Edwards’ hawkish vows the night before to hunt down the terrorists and destroy them.

Frankly, I kind of liked the speech, as it far surpassed my basement-level expectations. (I also support hunting down terrorists and eliminating them, by the way.) As Kerry bounded up the stage, vigorously shook hands with his well-wishers, as he injected some oomph and, dare I say, some suggestions of passion into what he was saying, I felt, momentarily, like a wide-eyed Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein, compelled to exclaim: “It’s A-l-i-v-e! ALIVE!”

As to the substance, well, come on. What did you expect? More Clintonisms, applets instead of programs. Slogans instead of ideas. This is the Democratic Party, you know.

Which brings us back to the war in Iraq. Kerry said during the speech, and has said subsequently, that he knows what to do in Iraq. Great. I wonder when he’s going to tell the rest of us. I think he needs to do that much to win. He needs to be crystal clear on what his position is, even if that position does not have to be black-and-white. So it’s not that Kerry refuses to call for withdrawal. (Though in the last few days, he says — as Jesse Jackson did at the DNC — that he’s now for withdrawal “as soon as possible”.) Immediate withdrawal is the wrong position politically and morally — a purely ideological position fashioned to make those who voice it feel self-righteous, but it has little connection to reality.

It’s that Kerry needs to explain much better — as soon as possible — exactly why he voted for the war. That should be easy given that 75 percent or more of Americans initially supported it. He must explain precisely what has gone wrong with the war over the last year, how it got bollixed up, how the human and economic price tag has become unacceptable, and exactly what he’s going to do about it — other than plead with Jacques Chirac.

All he’s said so far is he’d do what Bush is doing but do it better because the Europeans like him better. That’s not enough. I think the local Kerry official here is right. The war is a backdrop against which all the other issues are projected. Kerry’s going to have to become much more convincing in explaining how he’s going to stop the hemorrhage of dollars, lives and military focus in Iraq without betraying the Iraqi people and without getting us more deeply enmeshed in a quagmire. It’s a difficult task, one that requires thinking in those “complexities” he claimed during his acceptance speech that he’s accustomed to. If there was ever a time to show off that talent, it’s now.

This election, like it or not, is going to be decided not at Fahrenheit 9/11 screenings in Los Angeles or New York or in gatherings in Ann Arbor and Madison, but rather here in the unsexy swing districts of Arizona, in razor-close states like New Mexico and Ohio and Pennsylvania. And I suspect what the undecided want to hear is an intelligent, practical notion of how their lives are going to change, or not change, with a switch in administration. They’re not looking for grandiloquent moral or ideological postures. Just a little straight talk.

LA Weekly