WASHINGTON, D.C—John Kerry and George Bush are two distinctly different people, and yet the platforms on which they are running—with few exceptions—often don’t appear different enough for voters to detect any real difference.
While Bush made an effort to adopt a more moderate tone at the convention, he is a zealot with a right-wing Christian domestic policy and a cowboy foreign policy. His economic initiatives are driven by old-fashioned cronyism, masked, as always, by the pleasing banner of free-market economics.
Kerry is not a zealot, but playing to the center-right he frequently comes off as a mealymouthed opportunist who refuses to articulate clear positions. What does Kerry represent? It’s better not to go there.
The policy “differences” between him and Bush? Take the assault-weapons ban, which beginning this past Monday is removed from semi-automatic weapons like the AR-15. The Republican-controlled Congress let the ban disappear without seriously trying to renew it. Kerry, in an effort to draw support from police officers and gun-control enthusiasts, backed the prohibition. “The NRA put the squeeze on George Bush, and they’re spending tens of millions of dollars to support his campaign,” he said Friday. “Is George Bush going to stand with special interests or with the safety of the American people?” But Kerry is not anti-gun. He makes it clear he backs the right to bear arms, and he waves around a shotgun to advertise that he is a hunter.
The fact of the matter is that the ban never had any meaning. As soon as it went into effect in 1994, gun manufacturers retooled their weapons to meet its standards, dropping such things as bayonet holders, and kept on selling them. For example, the government had put a limit on the size of a magazine, thinking that one holding a smaller number of bullets would lessen the chance a killer would go on a mass-shooting spree. But magazines made before the ban could be sold, and a brisk trade in them continued.
So Kerry’s position looks like the worst sort of cynical opportunism. The bottom line: The Washington Post reports that Bill Clinton said the Dems lost 20 House seats because of the ban. The party does not want to lose NRA votes.
Or take the issue of energy independence. Both candidates say they want to make vehicles less polluting and more efficient. Yet, for decades, both parties have joined to beat down any serious attempt to gain fuel efficiency. And because coal is a staple of the American energy mix, both have fought off strict controls on pollution emissions. The Republican drive was conducted under the banner of free-market economics by two Republican presidents, Reagan and the senior Bush; the Democrats were spearheaded by John Dingell, the longtime Detroit congressman whose wife is a GM lobbyist, and Robert Byrd, who has for years been the coal industry’s champion on Capitol Hill. The fight to prevent costly new rules against pollution and more efficient cars was played out in the halls of Congress while the politicians chirped about clean energy, the beautiful dawn of the solar age in which charming windmills dot the country and send their clean power from city to city. The arguments were farcical. And in this campaign? Same old, same old. There is little difference between the two candidates. Why? Both the energy industry and the automobile makers are prime contributors to political campaigns, and in this election both West Virginia and Michigan are battleground states.
Or take the issue of health insurance: There doubtless is a difference here, with Kerry inching his way along a path that just possibly could end up with insurance for almost everyone, while Bush has no such intention. Bush says his goal is to bring costs down via the marketplace. By now everyone knows the clichéd goal of looking virtuous by seeming to provide geezers with cheaper drugs is little more than a campaign device.
At each and every turn, the Democratic candidate’s dweeb team of advisers, now reinforced by a rescue squad straight from hell, tries its best to make its candidate look like he’s saying one thing while he does something else. The adviser team heretofore led by Bob Shrum, a longtime loser (7-0 in bungled campaigns), is now bolstered by John Sasso, the distinguished adviser to the ghastly 1988 Dukakis presidential bid. That was the campaign in which Dukakis’s brainy advisers tried to make him more appealing to the masses by having the Massachusetts governor put a helmet on his head and poke it up out of a tank. People are still laughing at that one. And it was the year of another great moment in the history of political campaigning: The late Lee Atwater, in his most unforgettable moment, lobbed the Willie Horton grenade into the Dukakis bunker.
Sasso is the man who is supposed to take Kerry’s language and translate it into sharp, pithy lines that will make audiences laugh and/or cry as if on cue. In addition, Sasso himself is often considered to be an ace at negative campaigning, like, for instance, the time Dukakis was opposing the hapless Delaware senator Joe Biden in 1987 for the Democratic nomination. He wrecked Biden’s campaign by accusing the Delaware senator of lifting part of a speech made by Neil Kinnock, the British Labor leader. Dukakis fired Sasso, but then brought him back. Earlier, Sasso distinguished himself by running Geraldine Ferraro’s vice presidential run with Mondale in 1984. For a while, Ferraro was every mother’s dream, until her husband’s mob links to the porn business were exposed. She has been an embarrassment ever since.
According to the media, Kerry has a sufficient “history” with Sasso that the adviser can ride by his side and offer candid critiques of what’s going on. Kerry was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts when Dukakis was elected governor for a second term in 1982, in a campaign Sasso worked on. More recently, Sasso got $100,000 in lobbying fees from Boston’s State Street Bank & Trust Company in 1998, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. State Street reportedly hired Sasso to get some good advice on how to persuade Congress to let people invest part of their Social Security payments in individual, privately managed accounts. Privatizing Social Security is one of the Bush administration’s plans that Kerry says he opposes.
Mario Cuomo is one politician who testifies to the artful skill of the new adviser, noting that Sasso “will be especially useful in taking a senator with a penchant for nuanced language—that includes an occasional sentence with three commas—and come closer to the rat-a-tat-tat communication that works.”
There’s a simple alternative to all this jittery nonsense. Why not let Kerry be Kerry? Everyone wants to talk about the war. Why not get him to tell the truth. In Vietnam he was a young man who answered the call of his nation to fight a war his leaders claimed was just and winnable. No one doubts he fought valiantly. In Vietnam he learned firsthand the lessons of war, and on returning home, changed his mind and had the rare courage to stand up for what he believed. There is no reason to skulk around, trying to anticipate Republican attacks on his war record. Kerry has nothing to hide. He is a war hero. His is a profile in courage.
Thirty-five years later, the same Kerry, now a senator, again answered the call of the nation and his president, and voted to support the war in Iraq, accepting the president’s statements that it was in the interests of our national security to attack. So did most of Congress, convinced that Saddam was a monster and a liar who was secretly amassing weapons of mass destruction. When Kerry, like numerous others, discovered this not to be the case, he opposed Bush’s policies and started calling it the wrong war at the wrong time. He publicly stated there was no easy way out, that we would have to craft an international approach through the U.N., perhaps run by NATO, and in this way gradually disentangle ourselves. This is not a flip-flop. It is a careful, judicious, moderate way forward proposed by a man who knows about war. So let Kerry be Kerry. Whatever happens, please let’s not have another Dukakis.
Additional reporting: Laurie Anne Agnese
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 7, 2004