When it was reported that George Bush had emerged from the vicious Republican convention with an 11-point lead over John Kerry, many Berkeley political activists seemed ready to concede defeat. “Kerry has blown it,” they moaned, “I’ve started to plan my relocation to Patagonia.”
Subsequent polls first lowered the president’s bounce to single digits and then declared the race a dead heat. Nonetheless, local Democrats continue to be depressed; they feel that the Kerry campaign has lost its momentum—somewhere during the past six weeks the media focus shifted from Bush’s dreadful record to Kerry’s alleged character defects.
Take heart Democrats, help is on the way! The race is so close that it is unlikely that Bush will be able to weasel out of the debates. When George W. ran for his second term as governor of Texas, he had such a big lead in the polls that he initially refused to debate his Democratic opponent, Gary Mauro; at the last moment he agreed to one debate on terms extremely unfavorable to Mauro. Many observers felt that if Bush moved into a substantial lead, he would pull the same trick with Kerry. Now it appears that there will be at least two debates, with the first on Sept. 30.
Many political observers expect Kerry to do well, as his debating skills are legendary. (Of course, many of us remember that Al Gore was predicted to wallop Bush in the 2000 debates, but the challenger more than held his own.) Kerry has to win the debates, move ahead in the polls, and shift media focus back to the Bush record on the issues of war, economy, and character.
Many Democrats initially supported Howard Dean rather than John Kerry, because Dean expressed our outrage over the war in Iraq. Now, Kerry must become the vehicle for this outrage. He must find the strength within himself to speak about the war in unmistakable terms, say that the invasion was a mistake that has hampered our struggle against Al Qaeda. He must make the case that a Kerry presidency will strengthen America.
If you listened to the Republican convention, you came away with the impression that all Americans have prospered during the Bush era. To respond to this fantasy, Kerry should return to the populist “two Americas” rhetoric used by his running mate, John Edwards, and tell the truth about the Bush economic record: loss of 2.7 million decent jobs, millions without healthcare, gaping holes in the social safety net, and wanton destruction of the environment. Kerry needs to make the case that his presidency will restore the middle class and create opportunity for all Americans.
Finally, if Kerry is to win on Nov. 2, he must challenge the president’s character; shatter the myth of Bush as America’s noble leader. The challenger can attack Bush on the grounds that he was AWOL during the latter part of his National Guard Service and asleep at the wheel before 9/11; and Kerry can remind voters that George was elected on the basis of his promise to restore dignity and responsibility to the White House. The president’s re-election campaign serves as a vivid example of how he has defaulted on this promise. During his Sept. 2 acceptance speech, one lie followed another. As one example, Bush claimed “America and the world are safer” because of his leadership, boasting that “more than three quarters of Al Qaeda’s key members and associates have been detained or killed.” As was the case with his other whoppers, this was a total fabrication. A year after 9/11, the Bush administration published a scorecard, which showed that 12 of the 32 top members of Al Qaeda had been killed or captured; two years later, only four more have been apprehended, and Al Qaeda has replaced all 16 of its departed leaders. America is not safer because of the Bush administration; most experts believe that because the war in Iraq has aided their recruiting efforts, Al Qaeda is stronger now than it was before 9/11.
To win in November, Kerry must expose these lies and shift the media focus back to where it belongs—on the failures of the Bush administration. Rather than strengthen America, Bush has weakened our country within and without. Rather than restore character and responsibility to the White House, Bush has overseen an administration characterized by partisanship, secrecy, intimidation, and lies. In the next 45 days Kerry should have ample opportunity to make the case that he is the candidate that will fulfill the broken promises of the Bush administration—strengthen America by bringing us together.
Take heart Democrats! It’s premature to throw in the towel, pack your bags and prepare for a hasty exit. There is still time for Kerry to regain the momentum and win the election.
Berkeley resident Bob Burnett is working on a book about the Christian right.