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Which Way on Election 2004?

By Sam Parry
March 10, 2004

George W. Bush, in an opening ad for Campaign 2004, declares, “I know exactly where I want to lead this country.” He then adds, “I know what we need to do” on foreign policy, the economy and education though he offers no specifics.

While the press has focused on another early Bush campaign ad because of its use of Sept. 11 images, this promise of better times ahead also conveys a dubious message. Though the images are folksy snippets of ordinary Americans – a waitress, office workers, a teacher and a female soldier – Bush’s case for himself is essentially autocratic: Line up behind me, the leader who knows best.

Perhaps the reason for this trust-me ad is that the vision Bush otherwise would offer – from locking in tax cuts that favor the wealthy to engaging in an endless war to eradicate “evil” – would unnerve too many Americans. So his best argument may be his all-knowing leadership. But Bush’s campaign message also presents a tough choice for presumptive Democratic nominee, John Kerry.

Red States/Blue States

Kerry will soon have to decide whether he wants to finesse the presidential campaign by seeking to sway just enough centrist voters to tip a narrow election his way or whether he will opt for a riskier strategy that tries to build a new political consensus and end the near 50-50 electoral stand-off between red and blue states.

In his early comments on the campaign, Kerry has pledged that this won’t be a “wishy-washy, mealy-mouthed, you-can’t-tell-the-difference” presidential election. But to make it that, the Massachusetts senator may have to challenge the conservative mantra – dating back to Ronald Reagan almost a quarter century ago – that government is the problem, not the solution.

Bill Clinton achieved some electoral success last decade by arguing that a modest involvement by the federal government could help. Yet after the Republican congressional victories in 1994, he was forced to concede that the era of big government was over.

Another part of Clinton’s legacy was the concept of “triangulation” – essentially finding a middle ground on political issues – which strengthened Democratic centrists seeking to craft political messages that accepted the conservative ascendancy while trying to lure just enough moderate voters to the Democratic side to eke out victories.

Trying to avoid head-on clashes, the Democrats also didn't engage in structural political work, such as building a media apparatus that could challenge the powerful conservative media machine that reliably promotes Republican themes. Instead, the Democrats searched for candidates who could somehow withstand the withering Republican/conservative attacks.

The finesse strategy floundered again when Clinton was subjected to non-stop vilification in the 1990s, ending in his House impeachment over a sexual dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. In 2000, the right-wing attack machine turned its sights on Al Gore. With the help of both the conservative and mainstream press, the Republicans transformed a hard-working public servant with strong family values into a caricature of himself, even a pathological liar. [For details on the Gore case, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Gore vs. the Media” and “Protecting Bush-Cheney.”]

Dean Phenomenon

In 2002, the national Democratic Party again chose a strategy of sanding off rough-edged policy differences, especially over the looming war in Iraq. The idea was to shift the debate to modest disagreements over domestic policy, such as how to fashion a prescription drug program for the elderly.

Bush and the conservative media machine, however, countered by exaggerating small differences on national security, such as a minor dispute over worker rights at the Department of Homeland Security, into a charge that Democrats were soft on terrorism. Most notably, the Republicans questioned the patriotism of incumbent Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., a triple amputee from the Vietnam War, and ousted him from office.

These painful experiences – from Clinton’s impeachment and Bush’s “victory” in 2000 to the Republican hardball strategy in 2002 followed by Bush’s rush to war in Iraq – left the Democratic base bitter, angry and determined not to repeat the mistakes again. Those lessons explained the phenomenon of Howard Dean’s meteoric candidacy, as Kerry struggled to explain his vote in October 2002 to give Bush authority to go to war.

(Kerry's argument is that Bush should have used the power to achieve a diplomatic consensus at the United Nations and make sure Saddam Hussein complied with UN disarmament resolutions, but that Bush abused the authority by ignoring the UN's inspection policy and invading Iraq.)

The Dean phenomenon forced Kerry and other Democratic contenders to toughen their critiques of Bush. Once that was achieved – and with Dean stumbling in his political presentation – Democratic voters turned to Kerry, the Vietnam War hero, as the candidate who could best carry the fight to Bush, the guy with a questionable record in the National Guard.

But now Kerry must decide whether he wants to broaden his vision with the goal of achieving an electoral breakthrough for Democrats or whether he’ll settle for narrowing his message with the goal of holding onto Gore’s blue states and prying loose a few red states from Bush.

Pollster Advice

In making this choice, Kerry and his advisers have almost certainly studied the recommendations from Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg in his book, The Two Americas: Our Current Political Deadlock and How to Break It. Greenberg urges the Democrats to forgo another campaign at the margins and instead pursue “bold politics” offering the American people a vision of an activist government taking on major challenges facing the nation.

In Greenberg’s view, Democrats should counter Bush’s strategy of starve-the-beast tax cuts by embracing John F. Kennedy’s vision of government as a way to achieve big national goals. According to Greenberg, Democrats should embrace Kennedy’s example, “a confidence in – indeed, brimming optimism about – our capacity to face the new challenges, particularly our changing economy, using government as the instrument of our empowerment.”

Greenberg says “JFK” or “opportunity” Democrats have “an instinctive faith in the ability of government to act as an instrument of community – to address inequality, raise education levels and income, and help families manage work, maintain their health, and gain a secure retirement.”

This approach wouldn’t nibble at the edges, but would bite into the issues that are at the center of American life: expanding education opportunities, solving environmental problems, ending dependence on fossil fuels, ensuring access to health care, and challenging Bush’s unilateralist foreign policy.

Greenberg urges no timidity. On education, for instance, the Democrats would promote “universal access to college and post-high school training” with a college tax credit covering the costs of tuition. On health care, the Democrats would call for universal coverage through a combination of tax credits and coverage pools. On questions of patriotism and values, the Democrats would say, “Bring it on.”

 “Opportunity Democrats want a discussion about the values to be honored and which values are under siege,” Greenberg writes. “Democrats want to talk about the choice between responsibility and greed, between working for special interests and working for the country as a whole.”

Greenberg even calls on Democrats to push tax reform, which could put Bush on the defensive around an issue he has dominated. Democrats would favor closing at least $75 billion in corporate loopholes, including the “Bermuda loophole” which offers corporations tax shelters. Greenberg also supports expanding the child tax credit and providing family-leave credits of up to $750 per week for parents to care for newborns.

Greenberg's theory doesn't call for Democrats to abandon the political center as much as they challenge Democrats to couch these ambitious proposals as mainstream American values issues, radically shifting the political spectrum. This is the political breakthrough Greenberg advocates.

Two JFKs

So far, some of Kerry’s rhetoric suggests that he wants to leave the option of exploring this sort of strategy open and has integrated some of these concepts into his campaign. On health care, for example, Kerry has pledged to fulfill the promise of President Truman to provide universal coverage. As a step in that direction, he has proposed a novel approach that would use the government to offset some health care costs so that businesses can offer coverage to more employees at lower costs.

Beyond specific proposals, Kerry would seem to have the style and record to rise to Greenberg's challenge to run as a JFK Democrat. As a Massachusetts senator with the coincidental initials JFK, Kerry is on paper a natural “JFK Democrat.” Indeed, Kennedy was Kerry’s political hero.

Kennedy and Kerry also have had striking similarities in their careers. Both received Ivy League educations: Kennedy at Harvard and Kerry at Yale. Both were Navy war heroes: In the Pacific theater of World War II, Kennedy commanded a fast patrol boat, the legendary PT-109; Kerry skippered a similar ship a quarter century later on the rivers of Vietnam.

Both JFKs represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress where they became foreign policy experts. Both were involved in major Senate investigations: Kennedy participated in probes of organized crime’s influence in labor unions, while Kerry spearheaded investigations of Reagan’s illegal wars in Central America, including cocaine trafficking by elements of CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels.

But fully adopting Greenberg’s JFK Democrat strategy in 2004 carries political risk. For decades, Americans have heard a steady drumbeat of denunciations about “the guv’mint” with few defenses offered in the popular media. Many government accomplishments – such as Social Security and Medicare, enactment of civil rights laws and passage of environmental initiatives – are either taken for granted or disparaged.

In today’s political climate, many Americans may not be ready to embrace activist government even if opinion polls suggest the electorate is tired of the current political paradigm. Greenberg’s bold approach could alienate millions of voters and lead to electoral disaster, some Democratic strategists fear. They say the safer play is to work on a few marginal issues to convince just enough swing voters to tip the balance to the Democrats.

Veep Choice

Kerry’s pick for a running mate may be the first major sign of which way he intends to go. The JFK/Opportunity model would likely require someone with strong communications skills.

Some Democrats see that in Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who impressed many political observers with his sunny, optimistic charm during the primaries. Edwards also articulated the frustrations of many working- and middle-class Americans who see the country’s advantages going increasingly to the wealthy.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is another intriguing option since he would be the first Hispanic on a U.S. national ticket. Richardson could help Democrats hold onto and possibly expand their support among Latino voters. Beyond solidifying Democratic chances in New Mexico, Richardson might put in play several Southwestern states, such as Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri is favored by some Democrats close to Kerry because he could strengthen Kerry’s position in the Midwest, perhaps helping Kerry to secure key swing states that fell to Bush in 2000, such as Missouri, Ohio and West Virginia. While favored by many labor leaders in part for his opposition to free-trade deals, Gephardt is disdained by other elements of the Democratic base as an architect of the disastrous, finessing strategy of 2002.

Kerry also could select a more traditional southern Democrat, such as Senators Bob Graham or Bill Nelson of Florida or Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana.

Polls currently show Kerry with sizable leads in California, New York, Illinois, and all of New England including New Hampshire, which Bush narrowly won in 2000. These states alone – plus Democratic strongholds of Maryland, New Jersey, Hawaii and the District of Columbia – would give Kerry 176 electoral votes, almost two-thirds of the needed majority. If Kerry could win Florida or a major swing state, like Ohio or Missouri, while holding onto Gore’s blue states, Kerry would oust Bush from the White House.

Card Playing

So far, Kerry has played most of his cards close to the vest. While Kerry has continued to criticize Bush on a variety of topics, from the loss of more than two million jobs and the ballooning federal budget deficit to Bush’s reckless foreign policy and the stretching thin of U.S. military forces, his policy bets have been on balance fairly modest.

For instance, Kerry has proposed that companies sending U.S. jobs overseas give workers three months advance notification and that he would end tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs while providing tax credits to companies that create domestic jobs. These proposals could provide some support for the American worker, but many critics believe this would merely stop the bleeding of American jobs and Kerry himself has been ambiguous on how many jobs these proposals would create.

Kerry also has been vague on how he would extricate U.S. forces from the chaos of Iraq, beyond saying he would rebuild U.S. relations with the United Nations and longtime allies while increasing the manpower of the U.S. military.

Riskier future bets might call for Kerry demanding revisions in free-trade agreements to insert sweeping requirements for worker and environmental safeguards. That would present a risk for Kerry, who has largely supported the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals that don’t include strong safeguards. With more and more jobs going overseas, however, Kerry has moved toward a more critical stance on “free trade.”

Challenging Bush’s intense support for free trade could attract blue-collar workers and help Democrats in red states as diverse as North Carolina and Ohio, but it could undercut Democrats in some blue states, such as Washington and Iowa, where exporting is a major part of the economy.

A switch in his position on free trade also could open Kerry up to renewed Republican attacks against him as a flip-flopper. In his defense, he has historically favored adding worker and environmental safeguards to free-trade deals, although he has voted for them without significant safeguards included. Picking Edwards or Gephardt as a running mate could signal a shift against free trade without Kerry having to address the issue in great detail.

However, fully opting for the JFK/Opportunity model would require Kerry to mount a broad challenge to Bush’s embrace of anti-government rhetoric, tax-cutting policies and free-trade economics. That would demand that Kerry articulate counter-arguments explaining how government can play an important and positive role in building a framework for helping Americans succeed.

If Kerry plays that hand, he would be making Campaign 2004 a high-stakes contest for America’s future. He would be sliding a lot more political chips onto the table.

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