You've Got Issues?
Lieberman's lieutenants claim his early support for a Homeland Security Department--which predated Bush's cover-your-ass embrace of the new government entity--as a leader-of-the-pack position. (Edwards has been pushing for a new domestic intelligence agency targeting terrorists, and Kerry has been an intermittent critic of the way Bush has waged the war on terrorism in Afghanistan.) The Lieberman camp proudly maintains that he was the first in the field to call for freezing the Bush tax cuts. Kerry and Edwards have taken similar stands, but Dean has urged repealing almost all of the 2001 cuts. (Gephardt, no friend of these tax cuts, ducked the issue as House minority leader.) The Lieberman gang does not openly peddle Lieberman, a past chair of the Democratic Leadership Council, as the conservative choice. "The idea that he's more conservative is a red herring," says a senior aide. "He's more independent." And it's not that he's "pro-business," this aide insists, but "pro-growth." Lieberman has been passionate about "tort reform"--of which Edwards is no fan. But the aide quickly points to Lieberman's support for a patients' bill of rights and prescription drug benefits to show he is not beholden to the insurance industry of his home state, Connecticut. Lieberman has voiced support for school vouchers as an experiment in limited circumstances, but not as a substitute for comprehensive public education reform. Kerry voted against vouchers, and Gephardt has decried them. A few years back, Lieberman wondered aloud about partially privatizing Social Security and then, he says, decided it was a lousy idea. While not using the c-word, his team does pitch him as a fellow who, as this aide puts it, "has broken from Democratic orthodoxy." And his advisers happily acknowledge that his finger-wagging at the entertainment media for marketing violent and sleazy products does distinguish him from the others. "Tossing tough love at friends is not a Democratic strong suit," says the aide.
Kerry's crew can cite several issues that make him a standout. He is, a top Kerry aide says, "the only candidate in the field who has voted against the bankruptcy bill all the time." That was a measure sought by the credit-card industry and condemned by consumer groups. A former prosecutor, Kerry is the only contender among the officeholders who opposes the death penalty, though he has raised the prospect of supporting it for terrorists. (Dean backs capital punishment only in cases involving the murder of a child or a police officer.) Most of the candidates have environmental credentials to flash, but Kerry aides say he has been one of the best friends of the enviro lobby, advocating higher fuel-mileage standards and threatening to filibuster against oil drilling in the Alaskan wilderness. On the issues, is he a straight-out liberal? His advisers like to cite what one calls his "occasional independence and break from conventional Democratic thinking." But that independence has taken on varying guises. There was the bankruptcy-bill vote (thirty-six of fifty Democrats backed the industry-friendly measure). Then there was the time, while he was working with the DLC on an education reform package, he called for ending teacher tenure and assailed "stultifying collective-bargaining agreements" with teachers' unions (after the Massachusetts teachers' union had helped him win re-election). And he has called for zero capital-gains taxes on investments in certain critical technology companies. (Lieberman advocates a similar notion.) Yet in a more populist vein, Kerry has called for a payroll tax holiday on the first $10,000 of income ($765 for every worker). Dean calls this "completely irresponsible."
As for Sharpton, he doesn't face the issues differentiation problem. (His office did not return a call seeking guidance.) On a recent Meet the Press appearance he laid out his game plan for "fundamental change": a $50-billion-per-year "alternative infrastructure revival" to create jobs; the establishment of a right to healthcare and a right to education; the protection of affirmative action; no to war in Iraq. Asked why he ought to be President, Sharpton declared, "Because the United States today sits in a global village. The world, because of technology and communication, is one village. And I, more than anyone talking about running, understand that village and, I feel, represent the priorities that the village must deal with in order to survive as a planet." If Kerry and Lieberman end up arguing over the finer points of their education plans, Sharpton will not be at that table.
So do Democrats want an antiwar nominee who champions gay rights and gun rights? A war-on-Iraq fan who advocates raising wages overseas? A foe of capital punishment who assails the education bureaucracy? If Briggs is right in saying the "big issues differences might be pretty narrow," perhaps the campaign will be shaped by quarreling over the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste depository in Nevada (Dean and Edwards, for; Kerry and Lieberman, against). No doubt, there will be brawling over issues, votes and policy positions. The campaigns are only beginning to comb through the records and remarks of the competition. Let's hope they find useful ammunition. The more the candidates resort to issues to reinforce their self-crafted images and to challenge those of their opponents, the better the debate will be.