Heroes, Villains, and the Fight Over Two Americas

John Kerry is suddenly being bombarded with more advice than an obese, alcoholic, unwed teenage mother seated between Dear Abby and Ann Landers on a cross-country bus trip.

Spurred by Bush's convention bounce, jittery Democrats of every stripe – including a hospital-bound Bill Clinton – are urging him to "throw caution to the wind," "start smacking back," "hammer home jobs, the economy, health care and education," and concentrate on domestic issues.

So the party faithful have gone from expecting John Kerry to beat George Bush by outmachoing the counterfeit cowboy from Crawford to expecting him to win by offering a better Medicare plan.

The truth is neither of these strategies addresses the greatest challenge facing the Kerry camp: the need to change the frame in which the campaign is conducted – a frame thus far constructed by Karl Rove and the Bush/Cheney brain trust.

A new poll by CNN/USA Today/Gallup makes it clear that, unlike 2000, issues are not driving this year's election. Voters are more concerned with leadership skills than the candidates' issue-by-issue positions.

Of course, leadership is about more than "a spine of tempered steel." It's about character, values, priorities and a clear vision of where the country should be heading. So Kerry needs to offer a compelling, overarching narrative tying his strength – and Bush's weakness – on issues like jobs, the economy, the environment, and health care to his vision for America's future.

Thankfully – and ironically – during its convention, the Bush/Cheney team delivered the very narrative that can defeat it. It was offered to Kerry last week when speaker after speaker relentlessly and shamelessly ridiculed the undeniable reality that we are two Americas, separated by an ever-widening gulf – not just in income but in educational opportunities, access to health care and the ability to realize the American Dream.

Rudy Giuliani and Dick Cheney even went so far as to use the notion of two Americas as the set up for jokes.

"Senator Kerry says he sees two Americas," said Cheney. "It makes the whole thing mutual. America sees two John Kerrys." And according to Giuliani, Democrats need "two Americas – one where John Kerry can vote for something and another where he can vote against the same thing." Hardee-har-har.

It's worth noting that this frivolity at the expense of the Other America came just days after the release of a devastating report from the Census Bureau showing that over 12 percent of the American population – 35.9 million people, 12.9 million of them children – now live below the poverty line, and that the number of Americans with no health insurance has increased by 5.8 million under Bush, bringing the total to 45 million.

And the growing chasm between the Two Americas is chillingly documented in a report released this week by the Economic Policy Institute which tells how over the last few years "income shifted extremely rapidly and extensively from labor compensation to capital income (profits and interest)." As Jared Bernstein, co-author of the report, put it: "The economic pie is growing gangbusters and the typical household is falling behind."

And yet Arnold Schwarzenegger had the gall to tell us at the convention that "America is back!" That the Republicans chose not only to render the increasing pain of increasing millions invisible but to use it as a punchline tells you all you need to know about the current mindset of the Grand Old Party. And, even more importantly, it offers an unparalleled opportunity for the Kerry campaign to stop defending itself against the flip-flopping caricature of Kerry that Rove has created and start defining who George Bush really is – a callous leader whose regressive policies have made America a crueler and more dangerous place.

The Two Americas narrative shows that, far from providing strong leadership, Bush has turned his back on the traditional American values of fairness, equality, justice, and responsibility.

What's more, it's impossible to talk about the reality of the Two Americas without talking about Bush's failures in Iraq, as Kerry did on Labor Day, pointing out to a crowd in Cleveland that this "wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time... cost all of you $200 billion that could have gone to schools, could have gone to health care, could have gone to prescription drugs, could have gone to our Social Security." And it's the Other America that is paying this cost in forgone opportunities and investments – and is also paying the highest price of all in lost lives and maimed bodies. There are precious few denizens of Bush's America slogging through the bloody streets of Najaf and Fallujah – other than the occasional Halliburton or Bechtel executive, there to check on their investment in democracy.

It was a great relief to hear Kerry slam Bush on Iraq, and ignore the siren song of those advising him to cede the foreign policy front to the president and stick to domestic issues. This, of course, is the same strategy Democrats followed in 2002, when they went along with Bush on Iraq in the hope they could take it off the table as a campaign issue and win on the economy. And we all remember how well that turned out. For the GOP.

The storyline of this campaign is really about heroes and villains. John Kerry and John Edwards are running because they are committed to the most important and heroic task facing our country: the building of one indivisible nation. They desperately want to make us one America. Bush and Cheney are running so they can continue to make life easier, plusher, and more privileged for the only America they choose to see. To succeed, they have to convince enough people between now and Election Day that the Other America is somehow a pessimistic figment of the Democratic imagination.

The people who flock to John Kerry's rallies know the truth. People like Lori Sheldon, a 45-year old mother of two who approached Kerry at a Labor Day rally in Pennsylvania after he had spoken about the struggle of middle-class Americans no longer even trying to get ahead but just to hang on.

Holding back tears, she told him that he had "told our story." In her case, it was the story of a family living paycheck to paycheck and in fear of losing their health insurance; Sheldon's husband is a baggage handler for financially strapped US Airways and faces being laid off this fall.

This is the voice of the Other America. And no matter how vehemently the president and his surrogates insist that it doesn't exist, it does.

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