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Why John Kerry Can't Learn

The Democrats seem intent on snatching defeat from the jaws of victory again.

By Adrian Dix 3 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca
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The Democratic Convention in Boston was nothing if not restrained, except for its promotion of John Kerry's record of military service. However, Mr. Kerry and his team seem to have learned little from past failures.

The Democrats' convention and campaign strategy appears doomed to lose them support; a plan so cautious and conservative in both style and substance, it can best be described as Ivy League Bush Lite. Democratic convention speakers, Al Sharpton aside, failed to mention the President by name or prosecute a case about his failures in domestic policy or foreign affairs. They also failed to mention the disenfranchisement of black voters in Florida four years ago, Al Sharpton aside, or labour unions, Al Sharpton aside. Not to belabor the point….

There was also no mention of Enron or Halliburton, corporate scandals in which the Bush White House is acknowledged to be complicit. With two Democratic nominees who voted in favor of the Iraq war, there is no effort to mobilize the majority of Americans who now oppose it. Important "Liberal" speakers such as Howard Dean and Barack Obama, who otherwise gave strong speeches, downplayed or did not mention their opposition to the war.

'Don't rock the boat, and pray'

There is much eloquence about the effect of the Bush Administration's radicalism -- a growing gap between rich and poor, lack of health insurance etc. -- but little about its causes, the reign of lobbyists and an unequal tax system.

This was essentially the strategy that almost destroyed John Kerry in the Democratic primaries; as hawkish as Bush on the war and defense, focused on deficit reduction and a celebration of the Wall Street successes of the Clinton era. Observing the would-be Democratic President's recent fundraising success on Wall Street and in other business circles, wealthy Republicans and business interests appear to be the target audience.

In fact, the Democrats have reverted back to the strategy that led to their 2002 debacle in Congressional elections, don't rock the boat and pray that George W. Bush will jump off a cliff.

In the primaries only the early success of Howard Dean shook Kerry out of this complacent path, at least for a time. Now, once again, the assumption by Kerry and his people is that Democratic voters are so committed to defeating Bush that they will accept the abandonment of any outsider agenda. To this extent, they may be right.

The rebel voter

However, there is a significant anti-establishment electorate in the United States that the Democrats cannot and will not reach with this soft sell. In 1992, 19 percent of American voters supported Ross Perot. In 1996, it was closer to 10 percent. These same voters gave life to the primary campaigns of Republican John McCain in 2000, Pat Buchanan in 1996 and in a different way Howard Dean. These are Independent voters who have never liked or supported either George Bush and are turned off by traditional politics. They demand political reform, are generally hostile to large corporations and favor economic nationalism (ie, opposition to NAFTA). These are voters unlikely to vote or be inspired by a message that amounts to little more that "more of the same, only smarter."

Moreover, for all the Democrats whining about the presence of Ralph Nader in the race, their decision not to talk about corporate scandals, the concentration of wealth, the war in Iraq and campaign finance reform gives life to his independent candidacy.

The Democrats are acting too clever by half. This is a repeat, in many respect of the Michael Dukakis campaign of 1988, a technocrats' dream. Dukakis won the nomination as a moderate alternative to Jesse Jackson, just as Kerry projected himself in contrast to Howard Dean. From the Convention to October, Dukakis focused on moderate democratic themes, promoting the knowledge economy (the Massachusetts miracle) and deficit reduction.

Only the last-minute decision in October by Dukakis to recapture populists and traditional Democratic themes saved the Democrats from one of their larger defeats in history, in an election they ought to have won. In the end, the Democrats closed the gap by attempting to mobilize the have-nots against the haves. However, it was too little too late.

Undercutting his own victory?

Kerry's strategy may yet yield a narrow victory. He is a stronger candidate than Dukakis and, after all, President Bush is by Presidential standards, very unpopular. However, these tactics will not yield if a majority in the Congress or provide him with a significant mandate for change. Kerry will be a 21st Century Bill Clinton, clinging to power for its own sake, but failing to deliver on the promise of his election.

By failing to aggressively make the case for change in America or prosecute the case against the incumbent President, Mr. Kerry risks providing Mr. Bush with one more opportunity to snatch victory from a shady and dubious record. The Democrats soft sell may end up being no sale at all.

Adrian Dix, a former NDP aide, writes for the Victoria Times Colonist and other publications.  [Tyee]

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