A friend of mine in Los Angeles reports listening to a radio station that caters to middle-class African-Americans and hearing repeatedly from hosts and callers that there’s little difference between George W. Bush and John Kerry. “People keep saying they’re both Skull and Bones guys,” she says. “So why bother?”
It’s a pity our political system doesn’t produce a more diverse range of choices. It’s also a pity that some voters don’t discern the Texas-size gap between these two Yalies. And it is troubling that polls show Bush voters to be more committed to their man than Kerry voters are to theirs. Of course, Kerry is largely responsible for this. He’s no dynamo on the stump. But that’s always been the case, and Democrats and anti-Bush voters still waiting for Kerry to seduce, charm or excite them and others–by changing his style or by issuing bold, imagination-capturing policy proposals–should give it a rest. Kerry’s limitations are not going to disappear between now and Election Day. Yet it is important that Democrats and potential Kerry voters perceive him–and talk about him–as more than an Anybody-but-Bush placeholder.
That’s not always easy. Kerry can get lost in nuance, not a trait associated with strong leaders (though the country could use a leader who recognizes, let alone appreciates, nuances). He has voted consistently for abortion rights–earning a 100 percent rating from Planned Parenthood–but when asked about abortion he ruminated that he might consider appointing an antiabortion judge to a lower bench. His supporters shook their heads. His foes claimed it as evidence of his “flip-flopping” ways. So, a stalwart choice supporter found himself explaining a position that should need no explanation.
On the Iraq war, Kerry voted to grant Bush authority to attack but called on him to try all other options and create a truly multilateral coalition before launching an invasion. He did not support the war, as some detractors on the left charge, but he did enable it. That, too, has required explaining. Nowadays, he gets criticism from progressives for not presenting a bold plan for extricating us from Iraq. But short of supporting an immediate withdrawal of US troops–which many believe could lead to civil war and a troubled state useful for terrorists–what fundamental policy change might Kerry offer at this juncture? The current UN position is that US troops can remain until the end of next year, as long as the interim Iraqi government agrees. Bush has signed off on this schedule. Should Kerry, who has urged doing more to internationalize security forces in Iraq, pledge to yank US troops before then? Even without international replacements? Good policy or not, it’s doubtful such a move would rally millions of undecided voters for Kerry. It also is not unreasonable for him and his supporters to claim as key talking points that (a) Kerry would not have created this mess in the first place and (b) he is better equipped to deal with the problems Bush has spawned. This is not a bold argument, but it has the benefit of plausibility.