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17 March 2004Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

'Electable' - but what else?
John Kerry is the 'Anyone But Bush' candidate.

by Helen Searls

In the second week of March, US President George W Bush launched a series of TV adverts attacking the presumptive Democrat presidential nominee, John Kerry. Within days, Kerry's camp responded in kind, buying a series of adverts in key swing states. With the presidential election still more than eight months away, the American public now faces one of the longest election campaigns in history.

One reason the campaign began so early is because John Kerry sewed up his party's nomination with unexpected ease. Before the Iowa caucuses, any one of four or five candidates appeared to have a fair shot at winning. Then suddenly the race was over - Massachusetts Senator John Kerry emerged victorious with a near clean sweep of the primaries and caucuses.

This was somewhat surprising, given that since Al Gore's defeat in the 2000 presidential elections Democrats have had no national leader to speak of, and the party has all but lost its voice in national politics. With the exception of the Reverend Al Sharpton, none of the Democratic candidates was a real character. Kerry was respected and liked, but hadn't made much of an impact - in fact, three weeks before the Iowa caucuses, the accepted wisdom in Washington was that Kerry was smart but too grey and uncharismatic to clinch the nomination.

Democrats explain Kerry's sudden success as testament to his hidden strengths as a leader. Party loyalists claim that Kerry's success in the early ballots was because of his effectiveness when meeting voters one to one - then once the national media took a better look at him, his winning qualities shone through. The Democrat National Committee is delighted that the nomination process was so painless - on 12 March it announced that Democrats would celebrate their 'historic unity' in a special 'Unity Meetup' at the end of March.

The reality, however, is that Kerry's success is an indication of just how desperate the Democrats have become since Gore's defeat in 2000. The Democrats have lacked a leader for the past three years because they have had nothing distinctive to say. Even when the American public was highly ambivalent about going to war in Iraq, Democrats at the national level could not bring themselves to take issue with the Republican White House.

Democrats now find themselves in a quandary. Party loyalists have a deep hatred of Bush, and never fail to tell you how stupid and ignorant he is. But profound personal loathing has not generated any clear policy alternative within the party leadership. With the possible exception of the nominations of senior judges, mainstream Democrats have found it hard to articulate a political opposition to Bush.

The emergence of Kerry as the new golden boy of the party is part of this problem. This week Kerry was caught on an open mike saying that the Bush administration was 'the most crooked...lying group I've ever seen. It's scary'. The apparently unguarded remarks, though not very presidential, did Kerry little harm and in some circles no doubt boosted his standing. But although Kerry hates the president, it is less clear what else distinguishes his campaign.

Bumper stickers have already gone on sale saying 'Anyone But Cheney'
It was personal loathing of Bush that drove the whole Democrat nomination process. In 2003, before it was known who was going to run in the primaries, buttons and bumper stickers appeared saying 'ABB - Anyone But Bush'.

Howard Dean initially captured the mood of party activists when he came out and expressed his personal anger against Bush. Before the Iowa caucuses Dean headed all the polls, then Democrats feared that his rough image might not appeal to swing voters and he was unceremoniously dropped.

The impetus that had gathered behind Dean quickly switched to Kerry. Kerry's main quality in Democratic eyes is not that he is a great leader but that he is 'electable'. Some say he is electable because he was a Vietnam war hero; others because came out against that war. But whatever electability means, he apparently has it.

Kerry won the Anyone But Bush nomination because Democrats deemed that he had the best chance of ousting the president. Once there was a clear frontrunner Democrats didn't really care who it was, so long as there was someone who would be vaguely credible against Bush.

Kerry now faces the task of choosing a running mate for vice president. Inevitably, bumper stickers have already gone on sale saying 'Anyone But Cheney'. With politics like this, American voters face not only one of the longest presidential campaigns in history, but also one of the most vacuous.

Helen Searls lives and works in Washington DC.

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