John Kerry gained ground in the first two debates to the extent that he was tough and clear. He is credible as a tough leader on terrorism not based on how many times he uses the words "kill terrorists" but based on how tough he is in standing up for what he believes.
To the extent that he evades difficult questions, Kerry looks weaker across the board. Just being resolute wins voter respect, even from those who may disagree with him on the issues.
One thing the conservatives have done brilliantly is to make progressive Democrats feel embarrassed about their own first principles. The federal government has been turned into the enemy (except when George W. Bush wants to promote fantastical expeditions by the armed forces at the direction of the Defense Department, a branch of the government that is somehow seen as uniquely competent).
For instance, when Bush claimed in the St. Louis debate that Kerry wanted a "government program" for health insurance, I was waiting for Senator Kerry to respond, "Mr. Bush, 40 million seniors have secure health coverage -- the only health plan where you can still freely chose your own doctor and hospital, the only one where they don't discriminate against people with histories of serious illnesses. It's called Medicare. In case you forgot, Medicare is a government program. Are you against that?
"We Democrats enacted it because the private sector didn't want to insure seniors. The Republicans didn't give us much help. And you, Mr. Bush, get your insurance through a government program, as do I and every other member of Congress. I want every American to have insurance coverage as secure as the government coverage we get. Anything wrong with that?"
When Bush called Kerry "a liberal," Kerry recoiled as if Bush had called him a dirty word and declared that the president was trying to scare voters by "throwing labels around."
I'd like to hear Kerry say: "Let me tell you about my kind of liberal. It's a leader who keeps America militarily and economically strong while winning the world's respect -- the legacy of FDR, Harry Truman, and JFK. It's a leader who opens up opportunity and provides security through great liberal programs like Social Security, Medicare, and college aid. It's leadership like Bill Clinton's, to clean up Republican fiscal messes and to provide 20 million new jobs. It's leadership like Martin Luther King's, fighting for civil rights. That's a label I don't run from. I wear it proudly."
I'd like Kerry to tackle the issue of abortion and the courts more steadfastly. "Mr. President, based on the far-right lower-court judges you've appointed so far, you and I both know that you will appoint judges likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. I want the fewest possible abortions, but I defend a woman's right to choose. I'm not sure that you do."
On the issue of the Catholic hierarchy's meddling in politics, John Kennedy faced that head on. Kerry needs to declare that as an observant Catholic, he would never support the efforts of his church or any church to dictate public policy on stem cell research, birth control, abortion, or anything else. He needs to remind viewers how Bush plays footsie with the theocratic right. The founders wisely kept religion out of government so that faith could flourish as a matter of individual conscience. Bush is fighting radical Islam but seems to want to move the United States towards a theocracy.
Kerry should also introduce the issue of voter-suppression --the blatant efforts of Republican operatives to intimidate black voters and hold down voter registration of other citizens inclined to vote Democratic:
"Mr. President, people bled and died for the right to vote, from 1776 in Lexington to 1963 in Selma, Alabama. I have no intention of letting your operatives take away people's right to vote, the most fundamental democratic right, and I call on you to shut down these disgraceful ballot suppression operations. We can't export democracy to Iraq if we undermine it at home."
He will win far more undecided voters by sounding tough, resolute, and consistent than by waffling in the hope of peeling off the odd antiabortion voter as well as prochoice ones and the government-bashers as well as people who value Medicare. Voters will respect him for sticking to principle.
Sometimes politicians do the right thing as a last resort. I bet Al Gore wishes he had been as tough and consistent in 2000 as he has been since 2002. He'd be president.
As in the Iowa caucuses that effectively won him the Democratic nomination, John Kerry is at last winning by running as if he had nothing to lose. More, please.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. His column appears regularly in the Globe.
© 2004 Boston Globe