John Kerry is borne aloft by party unity and the overriding imperative of defeating Bush, but the senator has entered a perilous zone where the outcome may depend more on the content of his character. During the next few months, Kerry must somehow fend off the smears and caricatures broadcast by Bush’s attack machine and, at the same time, define himself in more convincing terms for the broad audience of voters, many of whom know little or nothing about him. Who is John Kerry? What does he believe about the country? What do people get if they elect him?
So far, the candidate has been nimble and smart about counterpunching, issue by issue. A monthlong blitz of negative TV ads (with almost daily slurs from the Cheneyman) took a modest hit on Kerry’s ratings, but nothing that can’t be overcome. His performance on the second half of the challenge–defining John Kerry–seems weaker, with dismaying echoes of Clinton/Gore. I hope that judgment is premature, but the candidate does not have all summer to craft a compelling self-portrait. It’s forming right now in the public mind and sounds more wonkish than inspiring.
Kerry, for instance, proposed to reform corporate taxation–closing the loophole by which American multinationals avoid US taxes by holding profits offshore–as a way to encourage job creation at home. The increased revenue would be used to finance tax credits for businesses, large and small, for hiring new employees. The money would also be used to reduce the corporate income-tax rate slightly, plus a one-time tax amnesty for offshore tax avoiders. “Some may be surprised to hear a Democrat calling for lower corporate tax rates,” Kerry said in Detroit before addressing a rally of auto workers, hoping to inoculate himself against the Republican stereotype of an ardent liberal raising taxes.
The loophole reform is itself a worthy idea–more ambitious than anything Bill Clinton ever attempted–but the cuteness of the overall package reminds one of Clinton’s habit of always trying to have it both ways. Do something symbolic for the folks worried about globalization–but not so much that it will upset the corporations. Beyond an expression of sympathy, the tax package does little or nothing to reverse the deindustrialization ravaging manufacturing and some service sectors. Reducing tax avoidance might have some slight impact many years from now, but even that’s a stretch. The artfulness–and political emptiness–recalls Al Gore’s “lockbox.”
Kerry, in fact, has assembled the old crowd from the Clinton White House to cook up such ideas. His economic team is led by investment banker Roger Altman, Clinton’s Deputy Treasury Secretary, and the ubiquitous Gene Sperling, the Clinton economic adviser who shared his views with many of the Democratic contenders (even Howard Dean). Since White House days, Sperling has associated himself with Brookings, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for American Progress and, yes, the Democratic Leadership Council. “A Kerry Team, A Clinton Touch,” said the headline on a Sunday feature in the New York Times.