|LA Weekly, July 23-29, 2004
15 Weeks and Counting
It's Not Just the Stupid Economy
Can Kerry, soon to be anointed the anti-Bush, find a message to carry the Democrats to victory?
by Howard Blume
So how are things in Ohio?
With any luck for John Kerry, not too good.
Nurse Pat Beane presents a near perfect crucible for the 2004 race for president. It starts with her location, in Ohio's Stark County, where voters have correctly called the last nine elections, back to Richard Nixon. She is watching, waiting, for the appearance of the Democratic presidential hopeful in the trussed-out girls' gym of Perry High School, "Home of the Panthers," where banners proclaim, "A Stronger Economy for America's Workers."
Beane voted for George Bush in 2000, tired of the moral turpitude she perceived in the Clinton White House. Bush impressed her as a man of decency and upright personal values. Four years later, she now says of Bush: "It's not his character; it's his choices."
Kerry has a shot at her vote because of her unexpectedly less rosy world. She's on strike with fellow nurses from Akron General Medical Center. The rising cost of health benefits could more than cancel out proposed raises. Pension-benefit reductions also are on the table.
"We're taking care of people's lives every day," she says, "and we can't even get decent health care." Also, two grandchildren, who have serious, ongoing health problems, are about to lose government-subsidized health coverage in a round of budget cuts.
"And why should we go to another country and fight their war when there's poor people in town?" adds the 56-year-old nurse. "My plan was to retire at 60. Now, it looks like I'm going to be working till I'm 70."
She blames Bush.
So far, so good for the Democratic nominee.
John F. Kerry finally gets the nomination when the Democrats gather in Boston. And if all goes as scripted, one four-letter word will be repeated again and again, and it won't be the one Dick Cheney likes so much. Kerry's four-letter word is jobs.
Kerry's recent speeches have used the J word endlessly, especially when the Weekly followed him blow by blow on a recent swing through the West and Midwest. It came up when he spoke to union gatherings in San Francisco and Anaheim, among high-tech donors in a Silicon Valley museum and with Lee Iacocca at San Jose State University, in front of Latinos in Phoenix and before Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition in Chicago, and, of course, in economically battered Ohio.
This central campaign theme should ring familiar. Remember in 1992, when Bill Clinton's handlers coined the phrase "It's the economy, stupid," so he'd never forget the club he wielded to defeat the first George Bush?
Ronald Reagan also used bread-and-butter economics against Jimmy Carter in 1980, asking famously: Are you better off than you were four years ago? Kerry has appropriated the bromide word for word, giving full credit to the Gipper.
Kerry was flying solo when he spoke at Perry High, but Kerry's first joint appearance with VP nominee John Edwards also was in the Buckeye State, a key swing state, which has lost about 200,000 jobs since Bush beat Gore there in 2000. Stark County, where Kerry was talking, has lost about 12,000 jobs, about 5,000 in the last few months. Kerry's been in Ohio about a half-dozen times since winning the March primary.
"I am here running for president to put America back to work," Kerry says at the June "Town Hall" at Perry High, which is near Canton, Ohio. "If you thought of the United States as a car, Ohio is the engine, and if you want to think about this particular area, this is the driver's seat."
Jobs and the economy have been a consistent Kerry theme, even as he also tries on various messages, like a bargain hound grabbing suits at a discount clothing outlet. In the Kerry campaign there exists an ongoing tension between pursuing something vital and sticking with what's politically safe. It's the über-narrative of the Democratic Party itself in recent times and a recurring dynamic in John Kerry's career. Kerry supporters would argue that it's justifiable to do whatever's politically necessary to win this, and principled policy can follow.
A focus on jobs - and the job losses under George W. Bush - might get him over, especially if it remains true that Bush is the only president other than Herbert Hoover to oversee a net loss of jobs. The strategy also allows Kerry to segue into the adjacent crisis of health insurance - which most people get through work.
Kerry, the campaigner, pushes a view of economics that is simplistic and not entirely on point. Much of his ongoing critique depends on the state of the economy now - and this fall, when voters head to the polls. Sporadic and selective though it is, a sort of economic boom began about a year ago, lifting spirits and fattening wallets in some sectors and in some states. Election-year Kerry-nomics offers little that's concrete to address long-term conundrums where the next president ought to be making a difference, namely, the ballooning federal deficit and the looming Social Security shortfall.
Kerry, the intellectual, knows better. He's often wrestled with finding the right economic balance as a senator. Kerry sided with more Republicans than Democrats - as did Bill Clinton - when he voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement, endorsing the belief that jobs lost in the short term could be made up for in the long haul. But perhaps the last thing John Kerry wants is to get trapped in economic nuance, especially after the hand-wringing explanations of his Iraq War votes, which came across as bald-faced political positioning.
At Perry High, Kerry quickly gets to how he's made the problems of average Americans the "work of his life." Although jobs are the core argument, he's come to Ohio with promises of all sorts. He'll cut taxes for the middle class and small businesses, while raising tax rates on the wealthy and ending tax ? 24
loopholes for big corporations. He'll provide near universal health care and free college education.
And he'll enforce trade laws to allow American workers to compete fairly, he says, while also leveling the playing field for unions in contract talks with employers. Right now, "Every negotiation is a negotiation to give something back," says Kerry.
Nurse Beane nods in agreement.
When Kerry talks about how salary increases are turning into transfer payments to health-insurance companies, Beane raises her hands high as she joins the raucous applause.
Kerry's still on the hunt for themes to go along with his Economics Simplified. His campaign-trail closer has been "Let America be America again," quoting from a Langston Hughes poem. So far, the tag hasn't gotten as much notice as the "Two Americas" trademark of running mate Edwards.
In Phoenix, Kerry's tailored message to Latinos focused on education and immigration reform. Kerry said he wants immigrants raised in the U.S. to qualify for lower "in-state" college-tuition rates. He also talked of immigration reform that reunites families. And how he wants to prevent the exploitation of immigrant workers who risk their lives to cross the border. All of these points drew standing ovations from the audience of about 5,000 at the National Council of La Raza.
La Raza is nonpartisan, but the event sure sounded like a Kerry rally. Bush turned down an invitation to appear, but Arizona Senator John McCain, the popular conservative Republican, addressed La Raza on a different day, inevitably leading to buzz about the fantasy Kerry-McCain ticket that could never be.
Kerry was in and out of Arizona's 108-degree heat within six hours, but still managed to exhibit his less-than-deft side. First, his speech, originally billed as a Town Hall Q&A, went on so long that there was hardly time for questions. Second, he managed to alienate some Latinos in a brief post-speech interview, when he came out against driver's licenses for Latinos who'd entered the country illegally.
The remark "undercut the pro-immigrant statements he made in his speech," said La Raza spokeswoman Lisa Navarrete. "His campaign was hedging later, but he himself said he thought it wasn't a good idea for security reasons. We argue that it is a good idea precisely for security reasons."
A Kerry spokesperson explained the full Kerry nuance later. "He believes that this is an issue that should be left to the states," said Fabiola Rodriguez-Ciampoli. "He said that personally he does not support it, but he won't oppose a state's decision. It's a matter of jurisdiction."
Which leads to a new trivia question. What do immigrant drivers and gay lovers tying the knot have in common? Answer: John Kerry's against you, but won't stop a state from being for you - or from being against you. Or maybe what Kerry's really implying is that he secretly supports marrying-gays and driving-immigrants, but he can't express that because it might cost him votes, and he's pretty sure most gays and Latinos will have to vote for him, anyway.
Are we inspired yet?
Well, at least one inspired endorsement came from former Chrysler CEO Lee Iacocca, who fairly gushed about Kerry's Web site during their backslapping joint appearance at San Jose State.
Iacocca emphasized his conversion by acknowledging that he'd once cut commercials touting George W. Bush. In fact, he named so many Republicans he'd voted for that one person in the audience called out: "We forgive you."
Kerry, the top-of-the-ticket Yalie who made good grades, had no particular stumbles in Silicon Valley. At a San Jose fund-raiser, scientist Bill Lee, 49, found Kerry likably "funny" and "comfortable with his material." Consultant Lynda Sanders, 52, originally from England, thought "He touched on the key points," that he was "human, not a stuffed shirt at all."
Clearly, the moneyed, liberal, cultural elite really are his kind of people. They didn't need a cue card to cheer when Kerry pledged to be "a president who believes in science." They ate up his proposed tax breaks for businesses that hire U.S. workers and government funding for high-risk, high-yield research. At one clubby San Jose shindig, Carole King sang a ditty before dashing off to a grandchild's graduation.
Of course, the main purpose of going to California - where Kerry will win handily - is to get enough campaign money to pay for his next few trips to Ohio et al., including a trip to Columbus, Ohio, the day before the convention begins.
Those who doubt their Democrat can pull it off look for reassurance at Kerry's history. He's an episodically gifted campaigner known for strong finishes. His turnaround in the primary season began with having the nerve to replace key advisers on the eve of Iowa - a move lampooned at the time as hitting the panic button. Then came the good luck of Kerry's embrace at a Des Moines community center with James Rassman, a soldier whose life Kerry had saved in Vietnam. According to press reports, after Rassman's unsolicited offer of help, Kerry had only short notice of Rassman's arrival. At their meeting, Kerry's emotional reaction had an unscripted, compelling quality.
Less dramatic was Kerry's decision to follow Howard Dean out of the federally subsidized campaign-finance system. Kerry sacrificed federal funds in exchange for avoiding a spending cap. Soon after, Kerry made a $6.4 million personal loan to his campaign that furnished crucial bridge money. The original idea was to outspend or at least match any competing Democrat. Happily for Kerry, his campaign has now done what was once unimaginable: He's competing respectably with the Bush financial behemoth. He'd have been perpetually underfunded if he'd accepted federal money.
So Kerry will have the cash to get his message out, if he can find the right message.
With Edwards onboard, the Kerry-Edwards team unveiled last week their "values" message and an updated take on Iraq. "How you feel about Iraq is a reflection of your values about how you go to war," Kerry told the Washington Post, "about what's worth fighting for, about whether you were told the truth about what's involved. There's a value system that believes that America ought to work with other countries and put our best foot forward."
This interview, with its emphasis on values, partly counters Bush's emphasis on "family values." It also was a test drive for the convention. Said Kerry: "If they want to have a talk about values, it's just like I've said throughout the campaign: Bring it on. Because values are demonstrated in the choices you make every day. Values are demonstrated in the priorities of your budget. Values are demonstrated in what you ask Congress to fight for and pass . . . These are the real values that our country is founded on, and I'm willing to talk about those values - not their little political, hot-button, cultural, wedge-driven, poll-driven values."
The Bush assault will paint Kerry as a spent but nakedly ambitious Beltway politician, as a dour prophet of gloom and doom, as an out-of-step liberal, and as a flip-flopping opportunist with no real convictions. And it will succor whisper campaigns undermining Kerry's service in Vietnam and his subsequent antiwar activities, including whether he deserved all of his wartime medals and ribbons, and then whether he really threw them away during a protest.
Anti-Bush Democrats have reason enough to worry. Kerry has an "apartness" and an erudition that is easy to cast as aloofness. And aloof doesn't play with voters who don't know you well. You can almost imagine Kerry's staff cringing when a speech begins to run long or starts to sound like Yale debate-club ponderousness, rather than sincerity or just plain talking. Progressives are dumbfounded when Kerry tacks shamelessly to the center, seeming to tout tax cuts as often as George Bush, even if they're different tax cuts. And for their part, pragmatic centrists fret over Kerry's closeness both to Ted Kennedy and to Kennedy's political operatives - because of fear that Kerry may appear too "liberal."
Kerry needs to show something more, said former political consultant Pat Caddell, who saw his candidates, Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale, fall to Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. The appeal of Reagan, he said, offers a useful comparison. Sure, Reagan made verbal gaffes and didn't know the details. And his administration's actions were often at odds with his stated beliefs. "But Reagan believed in something and people knew that," said Caddell. "And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Caddell finds nothing symbolically reassuring about Kerry. Consultants "can write lines and speeches for you, but can't give you body language and conviction and that essential quality of credibility and believability."
Kerry's intellectual reach does not recall a Robert F. Kennedy, whose probity challenged listeners, while also inspiring them. To Caddell, the whole spiel sounds much too much like a practiced politician digging into his swag bag of promises.
"The Kerry campaign stands for nothing other than how it wins," said Caddell. "Among the people who might vote for him, who is John Kerry willing to piss off for what he believes in? Do you know anyone who is really excited about John Kerry running for president?"
Caddell wouldn't have said the same about a younger John Kerry: the 27-year-old combat hero who became a national voice for the fight against the Vietnam War; or the young Senator Kerry who pushed the investigation of Reagan's Iran-Contra scandal. That Kerry stood for something in the public domain. But Kerry's ambition and politician's cunning was setting a course even then, said Caddell: "He already was being compromised by his devils. His demon is acceptability politically. Yes, in his best moments he is really good. But when was the last time you saw that moment?"
These moments are not hard to find for admirers. They include Kerry's consistent support of environmental causes, which he pursued even as a lieutenant governor in Massachusetts, where he championed efforts to combat acid rain. At the same time, it's not exactly politically daring for a Massachusetts senator to be pro-environment.
Caddell would prefer to see Kerry thundering like Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican, by the way), who targeted the robber barons of the late 19th century. Caddell sees a parallel between that era and this. To him, it seems as though Kerry is more interested in persuading today's robber barons to give to his campaign than to give a fair shake to their employees.
Caddell is not alone among the anti-Bush who acknowledge that some Bush attacks are uncomfortably close to the mark. Kerry has waffled on issues from the sublime to the ridiculous, from the invasion of Iraq to whether he truly loves an SUV or minivan the most. In the 60-year-old career politician lives the politician's calculating nature, which all too easily reaches for words that might be politically helpful, rather than expressing deeply held beliefs and shaping public opinion through leadership. For most Democrats, none of these lesser qualities comes close to being a reason to abandon Kerry for Bush, or for Ralph Nader for that matter. But what about the fence sitters? Or the half of the population that doesn't vote at all?
The convention could turn the tide - and the VP pick of Senator Edwards helped - but it'll be a tough row against the current of Bush's negative ads, which have kept Kerry from rising in the polls even as Bush was falling. The Kerry campaign and Kerry himself have so far generated a distinct lack of enthusiasm for John Kerry.
Which makes the election a referendum about George Bush. Is it any wonder that Democrats are nervous about what the news will bring in the next few months? You can almost hear the strategists praying: Let the bad times roll. At least until November. ? 28
"In George Bush, you have a record of extremes: the tax cuts for the wealthy, pre-emptive war, a go-it-alone policy," said Democratic political consultant Mark Fabiani, a top Gore aide in 2000 who has no role in the Kerry campaign. "As long as you are a positive contrast - a moderate guy, not given to extremes - that's going to be the contrast that can win the election."
Fabiani acknowledged that Kerry is a "complicated man who's led a complicated life." But in terms of the election, "Kerry will win if he stands for some simple things: He's a solid guy with a history of service; he will tell the truth; he'll work hard. All of those things contrast to Bush, who hasn't told the truth, who hasn't worked particularly hard and who hasn't shown results."
And what about Kerry's discomfiting traits, the ones that drive away idealists on the left?
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime election with major, major issues at stake," responded Fabiani.
Indeed, besides foreign policy, there's the future of foreign-trade deals and whether they'll really protect workers here and abroad. There's the growing gap between rich and poor. There's the composition of the Supreme Court and the future of abortion rights. There's the health-care crisis. And the matter of how much of the environment gets served up to business interests.
The 'just win, baby' philosophy has a lot of merit in my mind," said Fabiani.
In Kerry, the Democrats hope they have at least created a safe harbor for voters, a place to feel comfortable going if they decide Bush deserves a thumbs-down. Along those lines, the convention will focus heavily on Kerry's war-hero past. The speakers will include David Alston, a Vietnam crewmate of Lieutenant Kerry. James Rassman, the soldier pulled from the river by a wounded Kerry while under hostile fire, will do events next week in Nevada and Arizona.
The Kerry package works for Republican Alma Winkler, a retired phone operator, who showed up to hear Kerry speak at his stop in Arizona. She voted for George Bush in 2000, largely out of party loyalty: "But I didn't realize how great the difference would be between what he promised and what he did."
Bush never had any attraction for Wiggsy Sivertsen, a San Jose State professor who attended the Iacocca-Kerry event. She's the sort of lefty intellectual whom Nader would want to pull in. Forget it, said Sivertsen, even if Kerry's "kind of a boring buy who doesn't have that magic of Bill Clinton." She added: "Kerry is kind of like Al Gore in some ways."
Still, "When I look at Ralph Nader," she said, "I can't help but see this egomaniac. We have one ideologue in Washington. We don't need another."
And what if Kerry doesn't support gay marriage?
"Listen," Sivertsen said, "I'm far to the left of center. I'm active in gay politics. But on some issues I can't just look at how things affect my community."
She didn't miss the irony of Kerry trying to cozy up to the business community, "but until the American people begin to understand their responsibility to support their candidates, we'll always be beholden to big business in some ways because that's where the money is."
How well will Kerry lay down the gauntlet when he appears before America? If it resembles his performance at the Perry High gym, he'll be no better, no worse, than pretty good.
As nurse Beane and other solid Ohioans listen, Kerry steers away from the complexities of Iraq. Instead, he picks off applause points, saying that he doesn't want American soldiers and interests held hostage by a dependency on oil. And that, as president, he'll only fight wars because he has to, not because he wants to.
Kerry is friendly, relaxed. He tells his stump-speech jokes as though telling them for the first time. He has his jacket over his shoulder, Kennedy style. He does nothing stupid.
Beane is not entirely persuaded.
"I don't know," she says. "I hear the same thing every election. I wish I had a tape recorder so I could send a copy back to them."
A few days later, the nurses' strike is over. One local paper, by chance, happens to quote Beane talking about her satisfaction with the compromise contract. Kerry can only hope that she's not too satisfied.