Can Kerry Survive Insurgent Bush Bounce?

Everybody has said the election would be close, but I thought Sen. John Kerry would trounce the Bush administration in November for its failures and favoritism to the rich. Kerry’s campaign would tie together tax cuts for the rich, poor job creation and mismanaged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as potent campaign issues for Democrats. Kerry would run as a proud Democrat saying the Republicans have shown their true colors, providing comfort to the comfortable, economic assistance to the well-to-do. I expected Kerry to make it clear that he is a leader who could unite the left and the center to oppose the power of lobbyists and campaign contributors.

I was willing to give up my opposition to the war in Iraq. (I support the war in Afghanistan.) I was willing to accept a balanced budget policy even if it limits the size of social programs, forgoing a budget-busting health care program, in the interest of party unity. But even with these concessions, the message would be Democrats are better, we are the friends of the middle class, of working people. It isn’t our compassion that distinguishes us—it our sense of justice and our rejection of Bush’s new American empire. We are the party of the people and internationalism.

Well, so far Kerry has failed to communicate that. Bush and Kerry are running neck and neck. The racing analogy is particularly apt because Kerry has adopted a “me too” strategy, by saying he would have voted for the war having known Saddam Hussein did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Hillary Rodham Clinton has the best answer to the question how would she vote, if senators knew then what we know now. “The war resolution would never have come to a vote,” she said.

Kerry needs moderate Republican votes, but he can’t gain their support without offering a good reason to vote for him. He can’t pander, another word for the Bush accusation of flip-flopping. Kerry has to show leadership and independence. Conservative Democrats have. Bill Clinton’s speech to the Democratic National Convention demonstrated how a wealthy citizen can raise issues of economic justice, and make the Bush administration look absurd. Clinton made his motivation clear: “Why, thank you very much, I don’t need tax cuts.” Yes, a rich man can say no because he doesn’t need government assistance, the hidden message being that Republicans are freeloaders who want the American people to make them richer than they already are.

So far Kerry hasn’t shown any willingness to borrow from Clinton’s strategy book. Ross Perot and John McCain have in recent years used the issues of economic justice and campaign finance effectively against the Republican establishment. Kerry is chasing moderate Republican voters and they are leaning toward him. But by narrowly casting his message, he has left us confused. What does he stand for? The Republicans are once again proving adept at taking control of a Democrat’s public image.

Kerry can’t run away from the Democratic Party. He can’t pretend he is a born- again conservative.

Consider this: Can Kerry persuade Americans he is in favor of the war? His hawkishness is suspect. Kerry needed to sharply criticize the war, and in hindsight he should have done that it in April when the war was going badly. Kerry hasn’t stated his position clearly, but he certainly should criticize the failure to give Iraqis potable water and reliable supplies of electricity. He certainly should promise that Iraqis will take the lead in rebuilding their own infrastructure. They can do it more cheaply than U.S. government contractors. Why hasn’t Halliburton become a major issue in this campaign?

The Republican convention opened by showcasing moderates like Rudy Giuliani and Arnold Schwarzenegger. They are important members of the Republican Party. Have we heard Kerry talk about the Democratic Party as a big tent?

At the same time, the Republicans have reminded voters that Michael Moore and the protesters suggest that Democrats are lefties. Kerry has worked effectively with the left, as has his political ally and Senate colleague Ted Kennedy. Kerry shouldn’t be running away from these Democrats, and he shouldn’t be bending over backward to please them. He should be showing that the Democrats are in a better position to oppose the selfish plans of fat cat campaign donors and special interests.

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