You've Got Issues? | The Nation


You've Got Issues?

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The wannabes are coming out of the woodwork. Six Democrats have announced their desire for the White House--and that number could double if all the presumed dabblers dive in. The challenge for each, of course, is differentiating himself from the competition. When it comes to brand distinction, the candidates and their keepers tend to speak in meta-terms. Joe Lieberman, with his values shtick and pro-business rhetoric, says he's a "different kind of Democrat"--echoing the phrase George W. Bush used slyly in 2000. John Kerry is Mr. Gravitas, who understands war and peace while showing hints of Massachusetts liberalism. Dick Gephardt, the experienced Midwestern pol specializing in what he would call working-family economics, is the Man from Labor. John Edwards, the new (pretty) boy on the block, is the Southern populist, a millionaire trial attorney who (shades of Grisham!) fights for "regular people." Howard Dean is Dr. Candidate--literally: a no-nonsense doctor-turned-governor from Vermont who successfully achieved healthcare for kids in his state while balancing the budget. And Al Sharpton is the wake-up, protest contender, the heir to candidate Jesse Jackson.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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But what separates these guys when it comes to the issues? Are there differences that do or will matter? Primary races do not always turn on specific positions. And most of the Dems in the race are in sync with one another when it comes to the Big Picture stuff: against the Bush tax cut, for abortion rights, opposed to Social Security privatization, in favor of strengthening environmental protections. War in Iraq is a major exception--and we'll get to that. But issues do get deployed in campaigns to prove the meta-cases candidates make. Since these candidates generally agree on much, the issue differences that do exist may well become magnified. And even if the field expands, the narrow ideological scope of the contest may not change--unless Representative Dennis Kucinich, the head of the Progressive Caucus, joins in and is able to attract attention. Others waiting--or pondering--in the wings are Florida Senator Bob Graham, Connecticut Senator Christopher Dodd, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden, former senator and onetime presidential candidate Gary Hart, former Senator Carol Moseley-Braun and former NATO Comdr. Wesley Clark.

So where do the as-of-now candidates themselves see the important policy contrasts? I contacted the campaigns of the six first-wave contestants and asked how their man stood apart from the others in terms of issues. "Yikes," said Michael Briggs, the press secretary for Senator Edwards of North Carolina. "I haven't taken that close a look at all their records. There may be a few modest areas of differences on tax policy." Edwards is promoting a $500 energy tax credit, he said, while Kerry supports a smaller version. Moving on to a grander topic, Briggs noted that Edwards was an eager co-sponsor of the resolution authorizing Bush to declare war against Saddam Hussein when he sees fit (though Edwards has slammed Bush for managing a foreign policy of "arrogance without purpose"). But the usually hawkish Lieberman has also been a cheerleader for the war, and Gephardt embraced the authorization measure. Kerry adopted a skeptical approach to the possible war--but ended up voting for the legislation. Dean, however, has flat-out opposed the movement toward war, explaining that he would not endorse military action unless Bush can prove Saddam possesses nuclear weapons. Sharpton, too, is a firm foe of military action.

"What differentiates Gephardt?" asks a senior aide to the Congressman. "It's his experience in the decision-making process." No, no--issues, stick to issues. OK, he says, Gephardt's campaign platform will include calls for universal health insurance, universal preschool, a teachers' corps (to bring educators to rural and inner-city areas) and an Apollo-like project for renewable energy. And there's tax reform--a wonkish issue to which Gephardt has devoted much time in the past, proposing a simplification in which three-quarters or so of taxpayers would pay a low rate, maybe 10 percent, with almost no deductions (except for home mortgages and health insurance). What about trade? Gephardt battled against NAFTA. Kerry and Lieberman are free-traders who voted to grant Bush fast-track authority to negotiate unamendable trade pacts. Edwards voted against fast track, and Dean says he opposed it, adding that he's for accords that include provisions establishing environmental and labor standards. Will Gephardt trumpet his anti-NAFTA past to court labor-minded voters? "Talking about NAFTA is over," the Gephardt aide says. "Trade may come up. But he'll be talking about it in a new way, such as discussing the idea of pushing for an international minimum wage at the World Trade Organization."

Differentiation is "easy for us," says Rick Ridder, Dean's campaign manager. He shoots off three bullet points: healthcare ("he did it"); the war in Iraq ("the only candidate"--among the officeholders--"who opposed the resolution"); and the Leave No Child Behind Act ("he would have voted against it"). Dean's beef with the education bill--which required more performance-measured testing in schools--was that it created an unfunded mandate for the states (which would lead to local tax hikes) and placed too much emphasis on testing. His three Senate rivals all voted for the bill. Like most national Democrats these days, Dean, who just finished his last term as governor, talks up fiscal responsibility, and might do so most among the candidates. (Edwards has emphasized curtailing "excessive spending," while eliminating tax breaks for special interests.) And Dean offers distinctions on two hot-button social issues. He boasts--and he does boast about it--a 100 percent rating from the National Rifle Association (though he favors extending the assault-weapons ban). And he signed the controversial legislation recognizing civil unions between gays and lesbians. Lieberman and Gephardt in 1996 voted for the Defense of Marriage Act, a device to block gay marriage; Kerry, his aides brag, was the only incumbent senator running for re-election to vote against it. (Edwards was not yet in politics.)

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