John Kerry's Tipping Point

There is a growing sense that John Kerry's campaign has reached a tipping point. The watershed moment was a sharply worded and highly publicized speech attacking George Bush's policy on Iraq on Sept. 20 at New York University.

In his speech, Kerry said he would never have supported the invasion of an Iraq that didn't have weapons of mass destruction. By asserting that America is less safe now because Bush invaded Iraq instead of pursuing Osama bin laden – "We have traded a dictator for a chaos that has left America less secure" – Kerry is now drawing a sharp contrast with his opponent rather than trying to sell himself as a better version of Bush.

Suddenly, there was a sigh of relief heard round the world as Democrats and progressives finally got some sparkle in their eyes. Kerry was talking values, which in turn created greater clarity of purpose and momentum among his heretofore ambivalent, and carping, supporters. It also marked him for the first time as the anti-war candidate, clearly opposed to a war that a majority of Americans say has failed.

The speech represented a clear-cut articulation of progressive values that have been missing in his earlier, more mealy-mouthed statements about the war. It highlighted the two core elements of a Democratic progressive vision: cooperation and promoting the public good.

On the world's stage, America will work together with our allies to fight terrorism and promote peace. Kerry's approach eschews the go-it-alone philosophy that has characterized much of Bush's foreign policy – an attitude that appeals to his fundamentalist electoral base, especially white male voters in the South and West, but endangers the United States in the international arena.

By linking the disaster of the war to the hundreds of billions of squandered dollars in Iraq, Kerry is also articulating the vision of a "strong America" as opposed to Bush's narrow focus on "strong defense." As language guru George Lakoff notes, "A stronger America is not just about defense, but about every dimension of strength: our effectiveness in the world; our economy, our educational system, our health care, our families, our communities and on and on." Bush and Co. – who plan to bleed social programs while offering tax cuts to wealthy individuals and corporations – offer a stark alternative in terms of both values and their vision for the future. Kerry's tough stance, assuming he maintains it, finally gives the base of progressive Democratic voters – including the large majority at the convention in Boston – something to believe in.

Say No to Negativity

More importantly, the speech temporarily silenced the crescendo of second-guessing of the campaign's strategy by its friends, pundits and fellow elected officials. Over the past months, there's been a cottage industry of Democratic Kerry critics, who have been busy talking to the media and handing out free advice.

While these same friends-as-critics may now claim credit for the turnaround, none of this noise was the least bit useful for the candidate or his campaign. It's why Republicans always, always make sure they stay on message in the media. A veteran savvy political observer who prefers not to be named says, "I'm glad Kerry finally got everybody to stop kvetching. That's no way to win an election. Don't forget elections are usually won by those who feel strongest about their beliefs. Enthusiasm is contagious. If the D's get more optimistic and committed, it will spread to undecided and alienated voters."

The free-floating negativity of Kerry critics motivated Michael Moore to write in one of his highly influential e-mail letters:

Enough of the hand-wringing! Enough of the doomsaying! Do I have to come there and personally calm you down?. . . Bush gets a bounce after his convention and you would have thought the Germans had run through Poland again.. . . Stop with all the defeatism, OK? Bush IS a goner – IF we all just quit our whining and bellyaching and stop shaking like a bunch of nervous ninnies. Geez, this is embarrassing! The Republicans are laughing at us.
The GOP is surely not laughing any more.

Speaking to Values

In their public response to Kerry's speech, the Bush team claims to be happy with this turn of events. Bush consiglieri Karl Rove's attitude was, "Bring it on." But the Bush campaign must privately be worrying about running against an articulate and plain-spoken Kerry, rallying his troops by opposing a war that is unpopular. They surely prefer the "nuanced" Kerry, and the public displays of disappointment his vague statements evoke from his own supporters.

The Bush folks know their track record on domestic issues is abyssmal, be it on health care, education or the economy. The 9/11 attacks, considered the White House's strong point, can just as easily work against them, given the colossal security failure leading to the attacks and Bush's own performance at a moment of crisis (famed 7 minutes he spent reading "My Pet Goat" to the children in the Florida school). If an aggressive Kerry is able to force them to defend the war in Iraq, questions about Bush's handling of the battle against terrorism are bound to follow.

The truth is that there is very little good to say about the Iraq war, except that Saddam, the evil dictator is in his little cell, tending to his plants. And there is even less to say about its success in making America safer in the world.

But facts alone will not win John Kerry the White House. Progressives too often think that superior facts and ideas will eventually carry the day against the Republicans. According to Lakoff, that assumption is just plain wrong: "Voters vote their identity and their values, which need not coincide with their self-interest."

The veteran political observer says: "People have to get it out of their head that the Republicans are misinformed or duped by the media. They know what they want and are totally committed to achieving it. The New York Times quoted a Republican delegate who said: 'We're in a civil war over abortion and gay rights and well never give in.' That's what you are up against."

Most of the conservative voters feel more strongly about the wedge issues such as religion, gay fright and abortion. It's why Bush is doing well enough in Ohio despite the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.

Kerry, however, should not try and address this problem by moving to the right. As Lakoff argues, leaning rightward not only alienates the progressive base, it also helps reinforce conservative values among swing voters. The most effective strategy is to appeal to progressive values among these same voters, who are in the "middle" precisely because they subscribe to both value systems in different aspects of their lives.

Kerry's immediate challenge is to bolster his support among women. The New York Times reports that polls show Bush taking the lead among registered women voters, who are traditionally considered a Democratic constituency (Gore won the women's vote handily in 2000 – 54 to 43 percent). The Times' explanation for the switch included a number of possible reasons, all pertaining to national security: the terrorist attack in Beslan, Russia; the Swift Boat attacks; the 9/11 legacy; some combination of the above. AlterNet's political analyst Lakshmi Chaudhry has a different, more straightforward take:
If Kerry's down, it's not because of Beslan – that seems remote – or 9/11 or being security moms. It's because Kerry has not talked to women at all. He's been too busy playing macho man to get at the white guy vote, which he isn't going to get anyway. So maybe this is his wake up moment. He took the women for granted and now he's paying slightly. So now he's scrambling. What do you expect from someone who won't even come out and say clearly he is for abortion rights? Women may not want a macho man but they do expect a guy to stand up for what he believes in.
Kerry needs to give voters strong reasons – progressive value-laden reasons – to vote for him. His position on the war is an important step in the right direction, but he has to do a lot more of the same to take the White House.

When Numbers Lie

Much of the handwringing and second-guessing among Democrats during the past months was a result of disheartening poll numbers. The controversy that erupted about the polling results a few days prior to Kerry's speech provided another boost for Democratic morale. On the same day that a USA Today/Gallup Poll showed Bush surging to a 13-point lead, other surveys by Pew and Harris Interactive showed the race tightened into a virtual dead heat. This startling discrepancy raised questions about the validity of polling results. Newsday's irascible columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote, "If you want a poll of the Kerry-Bush race sit down and make up your own. It is just as good as the monstrous frauds presented on television and in the newspaper first pages."

Wall Street Journal reporter John Harwood explained a possible cause for the discrepancy:
[T]his year's bitter presidential contest has heaped on new challenges. They include an exceptionally close race and a polarized electorate that magnifies the consequence of different polling methods. In addition, unprecedented voter-mobilization drives by both parties make it especially tough for pollsters to say which voters probably will show up on Election Day."
The picture of electoral polls that emerged from a closer scrutiny wasn't pretty. Different polling operations widely vary in their techniques, sometimes arbitrarily, which produced results in several cases that overwhelmingly favored Bush. These same polling outfits, Gallup in particular, compounded the effect by emphasizing some data in order to make them attractive news hooks for journalists. For example, Gallup labeled respondents "likely voters" far too early in the process, and ignored other data, such as results among "registered voters," which gave Bush far less of a lead, but proved to be more accurate in 2000.

Among the reasons why Michael Moore considers most of these polls "B.S." is that they usually poll "likely voters," i.e. those who have consistently voted in the past few elections. As Moore points out, "So that cuts out young people who are voting for the first time and a ton of non-voters who are definitely going to vote in THIS election."

The controversy not only enabled Democrats to stop paying attention to the whiplash-inducing poll stories, but it also reinforced what many Democrats see as their secret weapon – millions of new voters added to the rolls by 527s, unions and non-partisan registration efforts. Harwood writes: "About 105 million ballots were cast in 2000. Bush strategist Karl Rove predicts a total of around 110 million; Democrats estimate more, with some totals as high as 120 million."

According to CNN, voter registration drives aimed at young people are turning 18- to 24-year-olds into an important variable in the presidential election, especially in decisive battleground states such as Michigan – where nearly 100,000 young people have registered in recent months – and Wisconsin, where the numbers are even higher.

Turnout, Turnout, Turnout

One can play the numbers game – be it with polls or voter registration. But in the end, this election is going to depend on one central factor: voter turnout. For the Democrats to win the election, they need to hold steady in those states won in 2000 and win at least one of the states where they lost last time.

Florida is probably the best bet for a pick up, depending, of course, on how the votes are counted. Florida now has a million new voters registered, with two more weeks to go before registration closes. The bulk of these new voters have been added by non-partisan groups with clearly liberal leanings, such as ACORN, the NAACP, Mia Familia Vota, ACT and the 527s. The Republicans account for 278,000 of that million.

New Hampshire and Nevada are also good possibilities for a Democratic pick up, while Colorado – where Democratic Senate candidate Ken Salazar is running slightly ahead of Republic beer magnate Peter Coors – is now emerging as a surprising "dark horse." Ohio looks tough for the Dems at this point, but then again ACT has targeted Ohio from the very beginning, and its concerted investment in organizers and resources could pull the state into the blue column.

In all, there are upwards of 3 million in new voter registrations across the nation, most of which are in the key swing states, where the winning margin in 2000 in a number of cases was under 10,000. Add to that a couple of million targeted ACT voters and you have the ingredients for Democratic success.

The bottom line is that we are going to see if Peter Lewis and George Soros, the big ACT multi-million dollar supporters, are going to get their money's worth, and if Steve Rosenthal, ACT's Director, and former Political Director of the AFL-CIO, will be the hero of Election 2004. It will be interesting for sure.

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