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Kerry's Last Flip-Flop

By Sam Parry
January 6, 2005

John Kerry may have written his own political obituary with a pathetic letter to his supporters saying that he won’t back a protest by African-American House members against voting fraud in Ohio. Instead, he urges his supporters to call Republican leaders and demand that they reform the electoral system.

The letter reads like it was written by the caricature of John Kerry that George W. Bush portrayed during the campaign: the indecisive, flip-flopping politician who wants to be on every side of an issue.

“I will not be taking part in a formal protest of the Ohio Electors,” Kerry wrote in an e-mail to 3 million supporters on Jan. 5. “Despite widespread reports of irregularities, questionable practices by some election officials and instances of lawful voters being denied the right to vote, our legal teams on the ground have found no evidence that would change the outcome of the election.”

While rejecting the efforts of Rep. John Conyers and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus to demand a floor debate on the Ohio abuses at a joint congressional session on Jan. 6, Kerry then calls on his supporters to renew the fight for fair elections in the future.

“If you want to force real action on election reform, we’ve got to demand that congressional leaders hold full hearings,” Kerry wrote. “Make sure they hear from you and help hold them accountable.” He then listed the office phone numbers for Republican House Speaker Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

Democratic Chasm

This latest Kerry recommendation – to avoid a high-profile clash with the Republicans now in favor of some bipartisan hearings in the future – is sure to infuriate much of the Democratic base that has been fuming about the illegitimacy of the Bush presidency since five Republicans on the U.S. Supreme Court handed Bush the White House in December 2000. [Despite Kerry's letter, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., agreed to sign the House motion, ensuring that a floor debate would occur.]

Based on e-mails that we’ve gotten from scores of rank-and-file Democrats, they are sick of national Democratic leaders who act as if the country is operating under business-as-usual political rules. The rank-and-file sees a national crisis that requires both strong leadership and creative strategies. Mostly, they want to dig in and fight, not ask GOP leaders for anything, let alone their agreement to hold hearings on election reform.

The obvious question in response to Kerry’s proposal that his supporters call Hastert and Frist would be: Why? What possible good would that do?

More likely, the impact of Kerry’s letter will simply be to widen the chasm between the Democratic base and the party leadership in Washington.

Time and again, Democratic leaders have asked their grassroots supporters to get organized for one more campaign. Then, those same Democratic leaders pull their punches and try to squeak out electoral victories by the narrowest of margins. That strategy created, in Elections 2000 and 2004, the opportunity for the Republicans to use last-minute dirty tricks to grab victories.

Many rank-and-file Democrats are sick and tired of these well-paid Washington-based consultants who constantly advise Democratic politicians to finesse controversial issues and not to be too shrill.

For instance, veteran Democratic adviser Robert Shrum has been blamed for the mushy tone of the Kerry campaign and its failure to sharply define the dangers of a second Bush term. Still, Shrum, who has advised eight losing Democratic presidential campaigns dating back to 1972, saw his consulting firm collect about $8 million in fees from Election 2004. [Washington Post,. Dec. 30, 2004]

Kerry's Change

As for Kerry, he put himself on the Establishment track in the 1990s, reversing his earlier status as someone known for speaking truth to power. In the 1970s, he protested the Vietnam War as a returning veteran. In the 1980s, as a freshman senator, he stood up to the Reagan-Bush administration over the contra-drug scandal and conducted a courageous investigation.

For his work investigating the Nicaraguan contra-cocaine smuggling, however, Kerry was mocked by the Washington Establishment. Newsweek termed him a “randy conspiracy buff” and the major media did nothing to rectify that negative image when Kerry’s investigative findings were vindicated by the CIA’s inspector general in a 1998 report. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter.”]

After the pounding he took for his contra-cocaine probe, Kerry began listening to advisers who urged a more cautious style as the route to a possible presidential bid. So, by fall 2002, Kerry was on the lookout for safe, centrist positions. As Bush charted a course clearly aimed at war with Iraq, Kerry accepted an understanding with Bush that the president would exhaust all diplomatic options before sending U.S. troops into Iraq.

At the time, millions of Americans were in the streets calling for the Democrats not to give Bush the authorization to go to war because the protesters recognized that Bush wasn’t serious about avoiding war if at all possible.

Indeed, it was hard for many rank-and-file Democrats to think that Kerry and other Democratic leaders really believed Bush’s assurances either. Many Democrats suspected that Kerry and other senators were simply ducking a fight with Bush to protect their political “viability.”

Democrats saw the same timidity when Kerry and his campaign advisers thought they could earn brownie points from the major news media by running a largely positive, issues-based campaign in 2004. To take the high road, Kerry’s advisers even excised criticism of Bush from speeches delivered at the Democratic National Convention, but all Kerry got for that was a rare “bounce-less” convention.

Bush and his advisers also had no intention of following Kerry on that high road. Pro-Bush attack groups, such as the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, aired dishonest ads accusing Kerry of lying about his war record. Kerry’s aides were shocked when big news outlets such as CNN rushed to play up those attacks.

When Republicans turned the GOP Convention into a Kerry-bash – complete with Purple Heart band-aids to mock Kerry’s war wounds – the media largely fell silent or marveled at the skillfulness of the negativity, rather than make Bush pay any price.

'Bring It On?'

To the disappointment of many Democrats, John Kerry who challenged the Bush dirty tricksters to “bring it on” early in the campaign didn’t get mad when he had every reason to denounce the smears against his service in Vietnam and the criticism of his principled protests of the war once he returned.

If there was ever a time for a straight-talking speech to the American people about how the Republicans play dirty politics, that was it. Instead, Kerry asked Bush to join him in urging supporters to refrain from negative advertising. Kerry even called on pro-Kerry groups to pull ads criticizing Bush’s ducking of service in the Texas Air National Guard. Bush, however, never specifically disavowed the anti-Kerry Swift boat ads.

A Washington Post analysis of Election 2004’s campaign financing concluded that the first Swift boat ad – accusing Kerry of lying to get war medals – was one of the key moments of the campaign as well as one of the most cost-effective attacks on Kerry. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “It’s the Media, Stupid!”]

Many Democrats also were distraught when Kerry conceded defeat on Nov. 3, the day after the election, even as reports were flowing in about voting irregularities in Ohio and elsewhere. Though Kerry continued to say that all outstanding votes should be counted, his concession undercut recount efforts in Ohio where tens of thousands of votes were discarded and never examined by hand to see if they did show a vote for president.

Now, Kerry has repeated that hair-splitting approach to the election. He won’t support a congressional challenge to the voting irregularities, but he wants the Republican congressional leadership to hold some hearings. He also says he will submit some legislation seeking reform of the electoral system.

To many Democrats, John Kerry’s have-it-both-ways letter ends whatever hope he may still harbor to be a national political leader.

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