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Politics in the ‘New Normal’ America

1.

During the spring and summer of 2004 some Americans, most but not all of them nominal Democrats, spoke of the November 2 presidential election as the most important, or “crucial,” of their lifetimes. They told not only acquaintances but reporters and political opinion researchers that they had never been more “concerned,” more “uneasy,” more “discouraged,” even more “frightened” about the future of the United States. They expressed apprehension that the fragile threads that bound the republic had reached a breaking point; that the nation’s very constitution had been diverted for political advantage; that the mechanisms its citizens had created over two centuries to protect themselves from one another and from others had been in the first instance systematically dismantled and in the second sacrificed to an enthusiasm for bellicose fantasy. They downloaded news reports that seemed to make these points. They e-mailed newsletters and Web logs and speeches and Doonesbury strips to multiple recipients.

These Americans had passed the point of denying themselves broad strokes. They kept one another posted on loosened regulations benefiting previously obscure areas of the economy, for example snowmobile manufacture. They knew how many ringneck pheasants Vice President Cheney and his party had brought down during a morning’s stocked shoot at the Rolling Rock Club in Ligonier Township, Pennsylvania: 417, of the 500 released that morning. They collected the vitae of Bush family associates named on the Web site of New Bridge Strategies, LLC, “a unique company that was created specifically with the aim of assisting clients to evaluate and take advantage of business opportunities in the Middle East following the conclusion of the US-led war in Iraq.” They made Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 the most commercially successful documentary ever distributed in the United States, earning in its domestic theatrical release $117.5 million. (By comparison, Moore’s 2002 Academy Award–winning Bowling for Columbine had earned less than $22 million.) They were said to be “energized,” “worked up,” motivated in a way they had not been even by Bush v. Gore, which had occurred at a time, nine months before the mandate offered by September 11, when it had still been possible to imagine the clouded outcome of the 2000 election as its saving feature, an assured deterrent to any who would exercise undue reach.

The July week in Boston of the Democratic National Convention, then, was for these citizens a critical moment, a chance to press their concerns upon the electorate, which had seemed during the month preceding the convention to be at least incrementally moving in their direction. By late June a Washington Post–ABC News poll had shown the President’s approval rating on the management of “the war against terrorism,” previously considered his assured ace in the hole, down thirteen points since April. In the same poll, the percentage of those who believed the war with Iraq “worth fighting” had dropped to 47 percent. By the week before the convention, the Los Angeles Times was reporting that its own polling showed that 54 percent of those questioned “say the nation is moving in the wrong direction,” and that “nearly three-fifths say the country should not ‘continue in the direction he [the President] set out’ and ‘needs to move in a new direction.’”

The Democratic nominee for president was nonetheless not a candidate with whom every Democrat who came to Boston could be entirely comfortable. Many of those impatient with what they saw as a self-defeating timidity in the way the party was presenting itself took refuge across the river in Cambridge, at “alternative” events improvised as the week went on by Robert Borosage of the Campaign for America’s Future. “Kerry, Kerry, quite contrary,” a group of young women calling themselves “Radical Cheerleaders” chanted outside Faneuil Hall. “So far right it’s kinda scary.” What troubled most was not exactly reducible to “right” or “left.” There was the question of Senator Kerry’s vote authorizing the President to use force in Iraq, and the unknowable ratio of conviction to convenience that prompted it. There was his apparent inability to say that, “knowing what we know now,” he would not cast that vote again.

In fact he said, in an astonishing moment of political miscalculation, since if there was any consensus forming in the country it was to the point of Iraq having been a bad idea, that he would. There was his fairly blank-check endorsement, again raising the convenience question, of whatever Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon chose to do with the occupied territories. There was a predilection for taking cover in largely hypothetical distinctions (he had voted not “for” the war but for giving the President the authority to go to war) that struck many as uncomfortably close to what the Bush campaign had been saying about him all through the spring. Even to the basic question of his “electability,” or performance as a campaigner, which seemed to many in Boston the only reason he was being nominated, there had been a certain uneasiness from the outset, notably about the temperamental defensiveness that left him uniquely vulnerable to the kind of schoolyard bullying that was his opponent’s default tactic.

Yet his acceptance speech was a forthright demonstration of his intention to run for the presidency on his own terms, by no means the unconnected series of music cues that the DNC commercials later making use of it would tend to suggest. He had already put forth a number of detailed domestic proposals, the most expensive of which was a $650 billion health care plan that would offer protection to 27 million uncovered citizens and relieve businesses from the risk of increased premiums by having the government assume the cost of catastrophic care. He had said that he would pay for this by rolling back the Bush tax cuts for those making over $200,000 a year. He had said that Americans would be free to buy prescription drugs from outside the United States, not an insignificant commitment in light of the $2.5 million the pharmaceutical industry was spending as a sponsor of the Democratic convention, but not an entirely significant one either: for the pharmaceutical industry and the six hundred lobbyists it maintains, $2.5 million was fractional, only a skim of the $29 million it had spent in the 2002 election cycle and the $11.5 million it had spent to that point in 2004. In the 2004 cycle, more than twice the amount of pharmaceutical money paid directly to the Kerry campaign had gone to the Bush campaign.

Still, it was a stand not without substance, and it was not the only such stand Senator Kerry had taken: he had established so firmly that his campaign would not be hostage to the reliable wedge issues (“What if we had a president who believed in science?” he had asked both in the Fleet Center and at his morning-after appearance with John Edwards) that he could launch a challenge to the Bush administration and its base voters on the Christian right over the question of stem cell research. He had made clear that since neither he nor most other people in public life could claim any high ground on the question of whether America should have embarked on its Iraq venture (“People of good will disagree” had been the conciliatory formulation in the Democratic platform), our only practical recourse now was to let the argument go, regard past differences as moot, and turn to recognizing and repairing our alliances with the rest of the world.

He had been, in other words, as realistic and as specific as it was reasonable in the pressure of a campaign to expect a candidate to be. Yet on the evening he spoke in the Fleet Center and after, among those whose profession it was to talk about politics, the word had been that there was “no message,” “no substance,” “at the end of the day I don’t know what they stand for.” On MSNBC that evening, only Willie Brown had defended Kerry. “He could have hit a home run,” the others agreed, but hadn’t. “Missed Opportunity” was the headline on the lead editorial in The Washington Post the next morning. “We don’t know where they stand on free trade, or gay marriage,” Craig Crawford of Congressional Quarterly and CBS News complained on Imus. (Actually we did. According to their platform and Web site, they were for free trade with nations that recognized US labor and environmental regulation, i.e., “free and fair trade,” or “level playing field”; they were for equal legal rights for all domestic partners; they were against amending the Constitution to ban gay marriage.) “No substance at all,” David Broder of The Washington Post said on PBS that evening. “He wants to bring everyone together, so there’s nothing there.” “What an incoherent disaster,” David Brooks wrote in The New York Times a day or so later. “When you actually read for content, you see that the speech skirts almost every tough issue and comes out on both sides of every major concern.”

We heard that weekend about the Democratic candidate’s “aloofness,” about whether the electorate would be willing to overlook his “personality deficits,” about whether he had managed to “fill in the gap,” make “the human connection,” prompt an affirmative answer to the question long accepted as the most predictive in American electoral politics, the one about whether “you could imagine yourself sitting around the kitchen table with him sharing a beer.” We heard about the self-laid traps that awaited him and his running mate, mistakes already irreversible in a game in which the ideal candidate is seen to be one who has been prevented by unassailable duty from taking a stand on any issue.

It would be hard, Cokie Roberts said to this point onscreen, for John Kerry and John Edwards to run on their records in “some parts of the country”; she was referring not to their votes as senators to authorize the use of force in Iraq but to the votes they had cast in 1999 against banning the procedure referred to on the right as “partial-birth abortion” (in 2003, when the question came up again, neither had voted), an issue she seemed to count so central to the nation at large that in a span of seconds she amended “some parts of the country” to “most parts of the country.” “It is almost impossible to go through a 20-year record in the Senate and not be able to find things that might embarrass a candidate,” the presidential historian Michael Beschloss told Jodi Wilgoren of The New York Times, who had raised the question of whether congressional experience could not backfire, “turning otherwise successful politicians into bumbling candidates forced to defend lengthy legislative records the average governor—or, better yet, general—can avoid.”

The Democratic candidate, then, was unelectable because he “skirts almost every tough issue,” or the Democratic candidate was unelectable because during twenty years in the Senate he had amassed a record (votes against some weapons systems, for example, and for 1997 deficit reduction legislation that resulted in the recent rise in Medicare premiums) the average general could have avoided. Or, an alternate scenario, the Democratic candidate could be electable, but only if he narrowed his appeal to the impulses and whims of the “swing voter,” for the last several election cycles the phantom of the process, someone presumed to have no interest in politics who is nonetheless mysteriously available to talk to Paula Zahn for a CNN special or free up an evening to sit in on a focus group. Swing voters, we had been told at the time Senator Kerry named John Edwards as his running mate, would respond well to the vice-presidential candidate’s “sunniness,” his “optimism,” his “small town roots.” Swing voters, we had been instructed, responded negatively to “pessimism.” “I’m optimistic about America because I believe in the people of America,” the President was heard to say in an early round of television advertisements, and then, a startlingly unabashed suggestion from a president in whose term more jobs had evaporated than in that of any other president since Herbert Hoover: “One thing’s sure, pessimism never created a job.”

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