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Part Four: Candidate Kerry
I’ve tried shouting "Kerry-Edwards" on the step out to my garden. The cat yawned and the flowers drooped. Democrats know this in their hearts. Twit them about Kerry’s dreariness, reminiscent of thin cold chowder or Weeping Ed Muskie and one gets the upraised hand and petulant cry, "I don’t want to hear a word against Kerry!" It was as though the Democratic candidate has been entombed, pending resurrection as president, with an honor guard of the National Organization of Women, the AFL-CIO, the League of Conservation Voters, Taxpayers for Justice, the NAACP. To open the tomb prematurely and admit the oxygen of life and criticism is to commit an intolerable blasphemy against political propriety. Amid the defilements of our political system, and the collapse of all serious political debate among the liberals and most of the left, the Democratic candidate becomes a kind of Hegelian Anybody, as in Anybody But..
The Kerry candidacy in 2004? As an inspirational candidate, even one whom polls predicted in early summer of 2004 would most likely end up in the White House, he is a dud, even damper a political squib than Michael Dukakis and far less appealing, by dint of his chill snobbery. Three terms in the US Senate have left almost no footprints of interest, except to Karl Rove’s propagandists eager to transform this utterly conventional figure into a seditious radical, hell-bent on putting the Pentagon out of business. A seasoned staffer on one of the military appropriations committees described Kerry deprecatingly to me as "the ghost senator; around here he doesn’t count for anything."
In the early days of his Senate career Kerry made headlines with hearings on contra-CIA drug smuggling and on BCCI, the crooked Pakistani bank linked to the CIA. Some of the Senate elders must have told him to mind his manners. The watchdog’s barks died abruptly.
Kerry offers himself up mainly as a more competent manager of the Bush agenda, a steadier hand on the helm of the Empire. His pedigree is immaculate. He was a founder-member of the Democratic Leadership Council, the claque of neoliberals that has sought to reshape it as a hawkish and pro-business party with a soft spot for abortion-essentially a stingier version of the Rockefeller Republicans. Kerry enthusiastically backed both of Bush’s wars, and in June of 2004, at the very moment Bush signaled a desire to retreat, the senator called for 25,000 new troops to be sent to Iraq, with a plan for the US military to remain entrenched there for at least the next four years.
Kerry supported the Patriot Act without reservation or even much contemplation. Lest you conclude that this was a momentary aberration sparked by the post-9/11 hysteria, consider the fact that Kerry also voted for the two Clinton-era predecessors to the Patriot Act, the 1994 Crime Bill and the 1996 Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act.
Although, once his nomination was assured he regularly hammed it up in photo-ops with the barons of big labor, Kerry voted for NAFTA, the WTO and virtually every other job-slashing trade pact that came before the Senate. He courted and won the endorsement of nearly every police association in the nation, regularly calling for another 100,000 cops on the streets and even tougher criminal sanctions against victimless crimes. He refused to reconsider his fervid support for the insane war on drug users, which has destroyed families and clogged our prisons with more than 2 million people, many of them young black men, whom the draconian drug laws specifically target without mercy. Kerry backed the racist death penalty and minimum mandatory sentences.
Like Joe Lieberman, Kerry marketed himself as a cultural prude, regularly chiding teens about the kind of clothes they wear, the music they listen to and the movies they watch. But even Lieberman didn’t go so far as to support the Communications Decency Act. Kerry did.
Fortunately, even this Supreme Court had the sense to strike the law down, ruling that it trampled across the First Amendment. All of this is standard fare for contemporary Democrats. But Kerry always went the extra mile. The senator cast a crucial vote for Clinton’s bill to dismantle welfare for poor mothers and their children.
Bush’s path to war was cleared by the Democrats, who were passive at best and deeply complicit at worst. House leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Lieberman rushed to the White House to stand beside Bush in a Rose Garden war rally, where they pledged their support for the invasion of Iraq. Like John Kerry, vice-presidential John Edwards went along with the war. So did the rest of the Democratic leadership.
Most didn’t even express regrets. Take Senate Majority leader Tom
Daschle. Nearly a year after the war was launched, after every pretext
had dissolved and the US military found itself mired in a bloody
and hopeless occupation, Daschle pronounced himself satisfied with the war’s progress.
Bush’s performance and personality have been etched well past caricature by dozens of furious assailants, culminating in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, the Democrats’ prime campaign offering, There is no need to labor the details of Bush’s ghastly incumbency in these pages. He came by his fortune and his presidency dishonestly. Official rebirth in Christ did not lead him, a former sinner, to compassion but to vindictiveness. Genes and education turned into a Mendelian stew of all that’s worst and most vulgar in the anthropology of the Northeastern Texan elites. A more limited occupant of the Oval Office is hard to recall or conceive of.
All the more striking therefore was it, as 2004 lurched forward, to mark the lack of exuberance, the poverty of expectations among Kerry’s supporters. A more limited challenge to the incumbent was similarly hard to conceive of as, month by month, Kerry methodically disappointed one more liberal constituency. In April it was labor, admonished that Kerry’s prime task would be to battle the deficit. In May and again in July it was women, informed that the candidate shared with the anti-abortion lobby its view of the relationship between conception and the start of life and that he would be prepared to nominate anti-choice judges. In June it was the anti-war legions, to whom Kerry pledged four more years of occupation in Iraq.
Thirty-eight years ago Martin Luther King was booed at a mass meeting in Chicago. Later, as he lay sleepless, he understood why:
"For twelve years I, and others like me, had held out radiant promises of progress. I had preached to them about my dream. I had lectured to them about the not too distant day when they would have freedom, ‘all, here and now.’ I urged them to have faith in America and in white society. Their hopes had soared. They were now booing because they felt we were unable to deliver on our promises. They were booing because we had urged them to have faith in people who had too often proved to be unfaithful. They were now hostile because they were watching the dream they had so readily accepted turn into a nightmare."
King, as Andrew Kopkind wrote at the time, quoting that passage, had been outstripped by his times and knew it. Nearly forty years later the times, and America’s needs, have far, far outstripped the party which at that moment of despair in Chicago King saw as the betrayer of so many hopes. The creative task beckons to us, to far more exciting battlefields than the designated "protest space" sanctioned and invigilated by the powers that be.
This essay is excerpted from CounterPunch’s new book on the 2004 elections, Dime’s Worth of the Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils.