Published on Tuesday, August 10, 2004 by the Guardian / United Kingdom
Kerry's big Idea? There isn't One
Desperation Shouldn't Blind us to the Faults of Bush's Challenger
by Simon Tisdall
The lack of an appreciable post-convention "bounce" in John Kerry's poll ratings is significant. The Democratic party's Boston shindig last month was supposed to present him as a strong, experienced replacement for President George Bush. But Boston's main achievement may have been to highlight the limitations and flaws of Kerry's candidacy.
The eviction of a White House incumbent is always an uphill struggle. It requires something special. Bill Clinton possessed that indefinable quality in 1992.
If Kerry lacks Bubba's bounce, it may simply be because he is not, well, very bouncy.
In truth, Kerry is not a lot of things. When it comes to participatory politics, he is not a natural; while worthy of respect, he is not loveable.
He is no ordinary American. His money, upbringing and privileged Washington and New England existence separate him from the mass, marking him down as member of the east coast elite.
Most of all, however, Kerry is not Bush, which is the principal reason why he holds the nomination.
From Iowa onwards, it became evident that Democratic primary voters were picking Kerry not because he enthused them but because they felt he could win.
Yet that is no reason to excuse Kerry's policy positions from more considered scrutiny. A central, underpinning theme is his attempt to present himself as a unifier in contrast to Bush's perceived divisiveness.
But analysis of his campaign contributor base, for example, suggests otherwise. According to data gleaned from independent campaign watchdogs by the Washington Post, Kerry's donor base is overwhelmingly bi-coastal.
He dominates in California and New York; Bush eclipses him in middle America.
Although Kerry claims to have significant business backing, Bush leads massively in terms of campaign contributions from company presidents and chairmen.
Conversely, Kerry has an almost total lock on contributions from professors, social workers, authors, actors, librarians, journalists and gays.
In this sense at least, Kerry's candidacy is entrenching America's divisions, expressed in hard cash.
A closer look at his policy platform also reveals the fault-lines in his overall appeal. Much of what he proposes on healthcare, education, taxes and deficit reduction is familiar to the point of being mundane.
There is no "big idea", no reason to believe a Kerry presidency will make a difference in these areas.
The rest is often vague and unpersuasive. On Iraq, as the Republicans rightly say, Kerry is disingenuous.
Apart from a more consultative approach, he offers no clue as to why US allies should suddenly change their minds about contributing more troops and money.
While he is right to make an issue out of America's addiction to foreign, especially Middle Eastern, oil, he offers no clear cure.
His prescription - which includes tax credits for fuel-efficient vehicles and greater emphasis on renewable energy - will, even if enacted, have little or no impact over the lifetime of a four-year presidency.
On trade, his vow to safeguard American jobs and to review all treaties has a nationalistic, almost protectionist, feel.
On the other hand, he gives little thought to the developing world's trade priorities and poverty reduction goals.
On Israel-Palestine, Kerry appears to promise a continuation of the Bush administration's lopsided approach.
In a speech to the Anti-Defamation League last May, he pledged "never" to pressurize Israel to compromise its security, "never" to push it into unwanted peace agreements, and "never" to halt US political, military and economic aid.
It would have been refreshing to see him offer similar guarantees to the Palestinians.
On terrorism, WMD proliferation and defense, as his Boston address made plain, Kerry is bent on hanging tough with the toughest, promising - in sum - to prosecute the same, endless, unconfined "war" that Bush declared after 9/11 while somehow rendering it more acceptable to Muslims and Europeans.
For example, he would open direct talks with Iran. But he would also double US army special forces and train them specifically to infiltrate countries (such as Iran) tasked with "finding and destroying the most dangerous weapons before they can be used against us".
Even Dubya has not yet dared go that far. Paradoxically, Kerry is likely, overall, to be a non-interventionist in the Clinton mould.
Those who understandably desire, above all else, to see the back of Bush should not be blind to the weaknesses of his would-be replacement.
If Kerry wins, all this will suddenly matter an awful lot.
This November, it may come down to a choice between being bombed or bored to death. Bush can be relied upon for the high explosive.
From Kerry and his "band of brothers" comes a whole new brand of blather.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004