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GEORGE W. BUSH should be struggling to explain the disastrous invasion of Iraq and an economy that’s still sputtering three years after the end of a recession. But for the past month and a half, it’s John Kerry who has been on the defensive. Now, even those liberals most devoted to rounding up votes for Kerry–such as Michael Moore and Rev. Jesse Jackson–are beginning to express their frustration with the Democrats’ lame campaign.
Incredibly, even as the occupation of Iraq descends deeper into chaos, Bush is gaining support on this issue, according to opinion polls. For example, the percentage of Americans who said it was "a mistake" to send troops to fight in Iraq fell to 38 percent in an early September CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll, down from 54 percent about only two months before.
Kerry’s liberal supporters blame this disaster on ineptitude–and desperately hope that Kerry’s advisers will get a clue before it’s too late. But there are more important factors at work.
Above all, Kerry and his chief advisers share a common political outlook that makes it hard to really take the offensive against Republican policies. Why? Because they largely agree with the Republicans on most issues.
Kerry’s staff has been through several well-publicized shakeups. But no matter who’s on top from one day to the other, the campaign remains in the hands of professional political operatives who came to prominence not because of any commitment to a political issue or agenda, but because of their skills in manipulating the media and crafting noncommittal sound bites, based on focus groups and polling information.
These high-powered strategists come from the same social strata as their Republican counterparts–which predisposes them toward pro-business policies and encourages the same condescending attitude toward voters. For the past year, the main figure in the Kerry campaign has been Bob Shrum, a well-known Democratic consultant who has grown rich off running the campaigns of well-funded candidates.
He has had a hand in dozens of campaigns, including the losing presidential bids of Ted Kennedy, Dick Gephardt, Bob Kerrey and Al Gore. But Shrum, it turns out, doesn’t discriminate–he also worked for Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger.
By all accounts, Shrum was primarily responsible for the tone set at the Democrats’ convention in Boston–above all, the refusal to criticize Bush directly. Since Kerry started dropping in the polls, Shrum has apparently been shuffled off to the sidelines, while several new players–most veterans of the Clinton White House–have taken on prominent new roles.
Anyone hoping that the Kerry campaign would take a more populist turn was disappointed. "[T]he hires are typical of the revolving door that exists between those who run campaigns and those who lobby," one political analyst told the Washington Post.
Michael Whouley is one of the new strategists. When he’s not running campaigns for Democrats who claim to have the interests of working people at heart, Whouley is raking in big bucks as a lobbyist, with General Motors, AT&T, the insurance industry and Microsoft on his client list.
Two Clinton administration vets, Joe Lockhart and Howard Wolfson, caused a stir among Washington insiders when they signed on with Kerry. The two are partners in a lobbying firm that works for drug giant Pfizer, Fannie Mae and the trade group representing regional telephone companies.
"With all these Kerry-hired hacks supping at the corporate trough, is it any wonder that the only slogan they’ve come up with so far is the oh-so-feeble ‘W stands for Wrong’?" concluded Doug Ireland, a progressive writer who supports Kerry and heaps abuse on independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
Kerry and this bunch may not be "trying to lose." But they certainly don’t want to win so badly that they are willing to upset the Washington status quo.
As Steve Perry, CounterPunch contributor and editor of City Pages put it, "Given the choice between winning what might prove an unruly victory and running yet another me-too campaign that will likely lose (but without upsetting their real base, which consists largely of the same funding sources as the Republicans), they take the second path every time. The Democrats are not stupid. They are cynical. They have no interest in changing the rules of the game, and toward that end, they are even more loath than Republicans to invite new people into the ‘process.’"