The ‘Me Too, But Better’ candidate

Kerry is trying to beat Bush at his own sorry game.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

Last week’s Democratic National Convention made clear that the upcoming US election is George W Bush’s to win or lose.

For a number of years now, nominating conventions have been carefully scripted campaign starters for the party’s predestined nominee. This time around, the Democrats wrote a script that was seamless and superficially perfect. The only thing it seemed to lack was politics.

In fact, the Democrats, with John Kerry at the helm, seem to want to avoid making this election a political contest at all. Instead, Kerry focused on issues he wanted to place beyond politics.

Take the American Constitution, that most political and heavily interpreted of eighteenth-century artefacts? Kerry insists that we ‘should never use for political purposes the most precious document in US history’, as if an apolitical reading were possible.

National security, too, is supposed to be beyond partisan bickering. Kerry declared that he will accept whole hog the 9/11 Commission’s recent recommendations, including establishing a centralised intelligence czar. It is always easier to duck behind a seemingly neutral, bipartisan commission on potentially controversial issues. This relieves the candidate of having to think for himself – and also reduces the political risk that an independent or contrary position entails.

An issue is seen in terms of unity or division, rather competing sides. And Kerry certainly wants to avoid ‘division’. In his speech he yearned for the post-9/11 national unity, which Bush apparently squandered – although in reality this unity was only ever ephemeral and shallow. Kerry echoed Bush’s famous ‘I’m a uniter not a divider’ with his ‘the emphasis should be on unity not division’.

Indeed, Kerry often seemed like an echo of Bush, taking the criteria Bush has established for the presidency and reflecting them back. Bush is a man of conscience? So is Kerry, but more so. He said what he believed about Vietnam. Bush is a patriot? Kerry is more so – he served his country in Vietnam, while Bush dithered in the Air National Guard. Bush wants to bring ‘trust and credibility’ to the office of the presidency? Kerry ‘will restore trust and credibility’ to the White House.

Bush is tough on terror and will defend the homeland? Kerry will do it better. He said that he wants a ‘strong military’, wants to keep ‘the most dangerous weapons out of the hands of the most dangerous’, and is going to tell the terrorists ‘you will lose’. He even opened his speech with the rather cheesy ‘This is John Kerry, reporting for duty’.

To this list of Bushisms one can add that Kerry is a ‘man of values’ who is willing to ‘tell the truth’, and subscribes to all the other homilies that haunt contemporary American politics. Kerry’s campaign has often been described as the ‘Anybody but Bush’ candidacy. It might be more accurately described as ‘Me Too, But Better!’.

Underlying this avoidance of politics and attempt to beat Bush at his own game, is a deeper crisis within the Democratic Party. It’s not just that Kerry lacks political imagination – rather, the Democrats have nothing qualitatively different to offer, and are internally divided.

Although Kerry offered a few token ‘differences’ such as repealing the tax cuts for the rich and refusing to privatise social security, such policies are symbolic gestures by a party that has no more ideas for the American economy than the Republicans. Nor are Democrats the party of equality. Kerry addressed his comments about tax breaks to the ‘shrinking middle class’, and there was no real discussion about what an equal society might look like.

The intellectual and programmatic stagnation of the Democrats reached a watershed in the mid-1980s. It is impossible to provide a specific date, but the dramatic defeat of Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election, in which he carried only his home state of Minnesota, and in which the ‘Reagan Democrats’ made their presence felt, caused a sea change in the party. For some Democrats, Mondale was seen as the washed up, ineffective candidate of an old party machine that relied too heavily on labour, minorities and anti-war liberals.

In response, the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which came to include the likes of Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Joe Lieberman, and John Kerry, was founded in 1985. Its basic political ‘innovation’ was the New Democrat philosophy, which held that the Democratic Party should become less liberal, less dependent on labour, more hawkish, and less focused on ‘social justice’. As organised labour declined in strength, the conviction grew that the Democrats should make more of an effort to court corporations, particularly in finance, biotechnology, and later information technology.

This did manage to attract some people, but overall the party looked in even worse shape when Michael Dukakis lost the election in 1988. The end of the Cold War was the final blow, since it was no longer tenable to argue that a ‘left-wing’ party was necessary to save capitalism from itself.

Serious infighting resulted, and the Democratic Party entered a wilderness period that it hasn’t recovered from. Nobody had a clear idea what the party should be about, and the DLC New Democrats seemed to gain almost by default, with Clinton seen as the party’s saviour. Many of the more conservative New Democrat ideas were allowed their play – welfare reform, crime, immigration restrictions, fiscal discipline – while Clinton threw a bone to liberals with his ‘humanitarian’ foreign policy. Yet these Third Way measures were a temporary holding pattern. The New Democrats could only ride out the shallow New Economy boom, hoping a bit of growth would cover up for the lack of anything more substantial to offer.

Clinton concealed the party’s problems, substituting personality and charisma for the development of new ideas and organisation. Today, the Democrats now sound unsure about to whom they are speaking, employing vague abstractions such as ‘the base’, ‘the middle class’, ‘the little guy’. Never having been a true labour party, the Democrats are not in a position to realise that the decline of labour, and their shift away from it, is the sociological basis for their political decay.

In this context, it is no wonder that Kerry just seeks to up the ante on all of Bush’s issues. This strategy may work, given that the Republicans are no better off, busy trying to cover up their own internal divisions and infighting. It is often forgotten that Bush was a weak presidential candidate, who had lost control of the Senate once in power, and was politically helpless until 9/11. After 9/11, some of the most strident criticism of the administration has come from within the Republican Party, and the bureaucratic infighting among the State Department, the CIA and the Pentagon has led to a series of exposés and dissensions.

If the recent convention is any indication, the Democrats intend to hold up a mirror to this ruination, and hide behind it. In effect, one party has withdrawn, hoping the other will consume itself. This might win the election; it’s impossible to tell. But it isn’t politics.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.

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spiked-issue: US election 2004

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Topics Politics


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