The image that most accurately captures John Kerry’s campaign came on the Wednesday of the Democratic National Convention in Boston when a parade of generals, including a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was brought onto the stage. At election time in the U.S., candidates always wrap themselves in the flag and try to look tough, but this was a truly unprecedented display.
The immediate message was that a significant section of the military brass has confidence in Kerry to be a wartime Commander in Chief. But the wider point is that the Kerry campaign has chosen to fight Bush on what Republicans would have seen previously as their strong suit, “national security” and the prosecution of the “war on terrorism.”
Obviously, the disastrous occupation of Iraq has been a decisive factor in the dramatic drop in Bush’s approval ratings, which have been below 50% for months. Over half the population now believes it was a mistake to invade Iraq in the first place. Furthermore, it is absolutely clear that three years after 9/11 ordinary Americans are in no appreciable way safer because of wars abroad and the war at home on civil liberties.
So attacking Bush on these issues would seem to be a good strategy for the Democratic candidate. Except that Kerry says he would actually send more troops to Iraq. He claims that he would have involved more “allies” before invading, but he has also recently come out and said that, even knowing what he knows now, he would still have voted in 2002 to authorize the president to invade.
Despite criticism from many supporters, Kerry will not change his line on this. He is running as a pro-war candidate, selling himself to the ruling class as a “safe pair of hands” to run imperialism’s affairs. And not just generals, but a whole section of Corporate America, is now coming out to back him.
The problem the Democrats have is whether the electorate will be inspired by promises to “stay the course” in Iraq and restore “fiscal responsibility” at home, ultimately meaning huge further cutbacks in social spending. Sensing this, Kerry, the richest member of the Senate, chose John Edwards as his running mate to give his campaign a slightly more populist tone on economic issues.
After the DNC, the Kerry/Edwards ticket did not get much of a “bounce,” and polls showed Kerry and Bush in a statistical dead heat in late August. But ultimately, it will probably be domestic issues and particularly the millions of manufacturing jobs lost since 2000 that will seal Bush’s fate.
One poll shows Americans favoring Kerry over Bush on the economy by 52% to 37%. In key “battleground” states like Michigan and Ohio there have been particularly heavy job losses. A recent poll in Michigan showed Kerry opening up a 7% lead.
Nevertheless, the Democratic leadership’s strategy of “appealing to the center” and trying to outflank Bush on national security could rebound against them. If, in spite of everything, Bush somehow manages to win, it will set off an enormous crisis within the Democratic Party. On the other hand, a Kerry presidency will have only a very short honeymoon, given the enormous problems abroad and at home.
The increasing social and political polarization in American society is currently reflected in the very strong mood among millions of working-class people, women, and people of color to throw Bush out. But the Democrats cannot satisfy these voters’ aspirations. This is why the Democrats are so determined to keep Nader off the ballot and thus deny voters the opportunity to vote for an anti-war and anti-corporate candidate.
In reality, both the major parties of capitalism in the U.S. are heading into a period of crisis, opening up major opportunities for independent politics on the left, including independent working-class politics.