COMMENTARY Searching for the Democrats: Candidate Kerry By BOB BURNETT

Special to the Planet
Friday August 06, 2004

This is the last of three articles summarizing my impressions of the Democratic convention. Here I compare John Kerry to George Bush (Kerry’s speech is at www.johnkerry.com/pressroom/speeches/spc_2004_0729.html). 


Several weeks ago I heard political co lumnist Molly Ivins, interviewed on NPR. A caller inquired whether she thought President Bush was stupid. Ivins responded to the effect that she didn’t, but rather that she thought of him as someone who has a narrow set of interests. She observed that Bu s h is interested in politics, and therefore highly motivated as a campaigner. Unfortunately, she quipped in her characteristic Southern drawl, his interests do not extend to governance. 

I mention this because while presidential campaigns often deterior a te into popularity contests, they should be about who can actually do the job. If voters had studied Bush’s record before 2000, we would have seen that he had little apparent interest in governance; his executive experience, both in the private sector a nd a s governor of Texas, was as someone who served primarily as a figurehead, rather than as a hands-on boss. 

So, when voters decide whether we will cast out ballots for George Bush or John Kerry, we should be making a determination as to which candidate can actually get things done. After the Democratic convention we know a lot more about John Kerry, and we already know a lot about George Bush—more than we want to know—so here’s a little quiz: Which candidate is most likely to accomplish these things? Withd raw troops from Iraq while providing a lasting framework for peace; strengthen homeland security; revamp intelligence services; rebuild global military alliances; participate in global treaties protecting the environment and worker rights; reduce th e budg et deficit; create decent jobs; provide comprehensive health-care insurance; guarantee a woman’s right of choice; and protect civil liberties for all citizens (to mention just a smattering of the important issues in this election). 

The Kerry progr am, “to make America stronger at home and respected in the world,” is a blending of key national security initiatives and a new populism. Kerry seeks to convince the electorate that he will be a better commander-in-chief than Bush, “I will restore trust a nd cred ibility to the White House,” and that he will represent all the people, not just the rich and powerful. 

Most readers will remember the famous Who anthem of the ‘60s, “We Won’t be Fooled Again,” which contains the sardonic line, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” How do we know that John Kerry will actually be different from George Bush, that he will be, as he claims, “the real deal”? I believe we can find the answer by looking at three aspects of his campaign: who his advisers are, what h e says, and what his reputation is. 

George Bush relies upon guys like Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and John Ashcroft; his campaign adviser is Karl Rove and his wife is Laura Bush. John Kerry relies upon folks such as John Edwards, Max Cleland, and Teddy K ennedy; his campaign adviser is Mary Beth Cahill, and his wife is Teresa Heinz Kerry. One of the most interesting comparisons is that of the two wives: Laura Bush appears content to silently support her husband and to suppress her own opinions (such as fa voring a woman’s right of choice). Teresa Kerry is an outspoken environmental activist and champion of women’s rights. In summary, Kerry surrounds himself with strong people who have genuine liberal credentials. 

John Kerry has based his campaign not only on a sensible foreign policy, to restore “America’s respect and leadership—so we don’t have to go it alone in the world,” but also on strengthening the social fabric that supports our democracy: “It is time for those who talk about family values to s tart valui ng families.” In the long run, Kerry’s speech may be remembered not for its specific initiatives, but for the fact that he urged Democrats to reclaim core American values and symbols: love of country, the American flag, patriotism, “Honor thy fathe r and thy mother,” “hard work and responsibility,” “opportunity for all,” and religious faith. Indeed, historians may cite his speech for one particular line, “I don’t want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God’s side.”  

A sociologist once remarked that there are only three kinds of politicians: prophets, radicals, and bureaucrats. Using this categorization, George W. Bush belongs in the middle category, as he is a conservative, theocr atic radical, someone who has taken very extreme ideas—going it alone in the world, looting the nation’s future, crushing the barrier between church and state—and ruthlessly pursued them. 

Democrats need a candidate who will both identify Bush’s radicalis m and rally the party. When Kerry launched his acceptance speech with the words, “I’m John Kerry and I’m reporting for duty,” he signaled that he is ready to lead the party with the same fighting spirit that characterized his resistance to the war in Vietnam. America stands at the brink of the most dangerous period our nation has experienced since the Civil War, and this election will probably determine the course of our democracy for decades. Democrats need a fighter to lead them, and John Kerry appears to be the ma n for the job.