It’s traditional in presidential politics for Democratic candidates to tack toward the center once they’ve secured the party’s nomination. In the current election year, however, this conventional strategy may prove unwise or even disastrous for Senator John Kerry.
Having dispatched his rivals handily, Kerry now confronts two more imposing obstacles. One, of course, is the incumbent and his $200 million war chest; the other is within his own party. The Democrats’ perennial problem is the disconnect between the party’s elite funders and its mass base. In contrast, the GOP enjoys a relative harmony of interests between the corporate class that underwrites its campaigns and the conservative constituencies that mobilize for the vote. Right-wing interests, especially of the Christian sort, can create havoc at certain times on certain issues, but successful Republican pols like Dubya know the proper tactics for keeping their coalition in order.
Democratic politicians don’t have it so easy. The party’s powerful donors, exemplified by the Democratic Leadership Council, invariably urge White House contenders to behave like Republicrats. In this view, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis were too liberal to win, but Bill Clinton got elected because he campaigned as a “New” Democrat and avoided (or triangulated) the left. Joe Lieberman’s campaign this year represented DLC thinking across the board, with Edwards and Kerry behind by a nose in the race to the right.
DLC centrism has become the conventional wisdom of the so-called “liberal” pundits of the press. This centrist media voice, to which Senator Kerry is clearly listening, is now clamoring for a Kerry-McCain ticket. (Can you recall a time when a Republican was ever urged to make any important appointment from another party?) Whatever wisdom there may be in this appeal from within the Democratic party to eschew the perception of liberalism, it does not match the thinking of the large majority of Democrats, Independents, and non-voters.
In recent days, Senator Kerry has repeatedly emphasized his centrist credentials. At a top-dollar fundraiser, he assured well-heeled New Yorkers that he was “not a redistribution Democrat.” He has already begun retracting his own proposals for new spending programs, signaling Wall Street that paying down Dubya’s deficit will trump his domestic agenda. He swiftly approved of Bush’s craven concessions to Ariel Sharon -- concessions that sound the death knell for Middle East peace negotiations -- for fear of showing insufficient fealty to the Israeli right.
This all surely placates the DLC mandarins, but it must be recognized that these are perilous tactics. The more daylight he darkens between himself and Bush/Cheney, the more he legitimates their policies and alienates those left-liberals who ought to be his most fervent supporters.
A large, motivated activist base will be crucial to success in the 2004 election. The country is intensely polarized. The current administration is perhaps the most radical in the history of the presidency. A tremendous number of Americans (not to mention foreigners) have noticed this. People are fired up. The zeitgeist is zinging with renewed liberal pride. Howard Dean’s unexpected early ascent captured the spirit of this most crucial of election years.
What Dean did wrong has been amply discussed. He put too much emphasis on one issue, the Iraq war; he let TV characterize him (with a yelp) instead of marketing a persona; most critically, he alarmed elites by thinking outside of boxes and by challenging the DLC head-on, prompting the party brass to circle the wagons. But remember also what Dean did right. He electrified a large group of young, activist volunteers; he cast the election in dramatic, almost epic terms, with his “take back the country” appeal; he directed that appeal largely toward the fifty percent of the U.S. electorate that customarily declines to vote. The White House race has lost a lot of pizzazz since Dean’s departure, and that is bad news for the Kerry campaign.
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This is why Kerry’s move to the center, seemingly a safe tactical gambit, is actually fraught with danger. A tepid, equivocal, middle-of-the-road campaign is precisely not what we need right now. The clear majority is calling for a bold, mature, compelling, aggressively expressed alternative to the vision of plutocracy and global empire driving the current regime.
From now through November, we can expect the Bush campaign, and pundits across the spectrum of mainstream media opinion, to portray Kerry as a “Massachusetts liberal.” This is not only an unfair, Red-baiting stereotype, it is an insidiously calculated fallacy. Being a Massachusetts liberal is emphatically (*)not(*) Kerry’s problem. Kerry’s problem is that he’s a boring, vacillating, equivocating centrist.
Kerry’s overwhelming success in the primaries puts the lie to the claim that it’s activists at the fringes who choose the party’s nominee. Primary voters, if we accept exit poll data, chose Kerry because his demeanor seems to convey the gravitas of “electability,” rather than because of his legislative record or his stance on issues. A cursory look at Kerry’s record reveals that when the heat is on, on some of the defining issues of our times, he can be counted on to vote (*)against(*) progressive positions: on the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, NAFTA, fast-track approval of trade negotiations, and Clinton’s welfare reform, to name five examples.
On many other issues, of course, Kerry’s positions are notably different from the Republicans, and even from more conservative Democrats in Congress. I’m not saying that electing Kerry wouldn’t be a change for the better. I’m saying that he will only win the 2004 election by courageously displaying the vision, guts and backbone to speak truth to power and really stand for something.
Some of Kerry’s most crowd-pleasing catchphrases turn out rather vacuous on inspection, such as his promise to appoint an Attorney General “whose name is not John Ashcroft.” This is enough to get a shout of approval, but it does beg the question of whether and to what degree the police-state apparatus Ashcroft has constructed would stay in place under a Kerry administration. The vagueness of his gestures to the left, coupled with the specificity of his reassurances to the right, send clear signals about how Kerry intends to campaign, and presumably govern if elected.
Senator Kerry, like Clinton-Gore and other centrist Democrats, may believe he has the left over a barrel. He may assume that progressive voters are stuck with him and will therefore stick with him. And he may be correct, given the high stakes of this year’s race. But he cannot count on committed, dynamic support from the left while running to the right. He needs to reach out to Dean voters, Nader voters and non-voters with specific policy statements that show he’s accepting input from these quarters.
At least he could be emphasizing the progressive aspects of his record. For all the Senator’s talk about his brave service in Vietnam, many would find equally courageous his leadership among antiwar veterans once he came home. Is he mentioning this on the stump? Has he brought up his leading role in exposing the huge vipers’ nest of criminals that was the Bank of Credit and Commerce International? This is arguably his greatest accomplishment in politics; does he remind listeners of this, or -- dare I say-- boast about it?
Like most Bush opponents, I find Ralph Nader’s decision to enter the ‘04 race distressingly tone-deaf. Bush/Cheney have by now proven demonstrably different from Clinton/Gore in numerous respects, weakening Nader’s contention that the two parties are all but indistinguishable. If he wanted to, Kerry could probably bump him from the race with a few tactful but forthright statements, perhaps some artfully-plagiarized lines from Nader’s speeches, a few campaign promises. I’m hoping he’ll try since he needs all 2.9 million of those votes. But I’m not holding my breath. Instead of courting progressive voters, I fear Kerry may actually drive many of them back to Nader with his centrist strategy. If this happens, again, he’ll have nobody to blame but himself. The $200 million GOP machine will not be defeated by a lukewarm lesser-of-two-evils. This year of all years, we need a candidate who is not a Republicrat.