IF HIS recent speeches are any indication, Kerry will try to run for president as a balanced-budget hawk, presumably hoping to avoid the " Massachusetts liberal " stigma that has hurt other Bay State candidates in the South. He’s now bragging about his " tough vote " for the 1993 Clinton budget (which included both a tax increase and spending limits), as well as his early support for 1985’s Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit-reduction plan. He may also try to blur his liberal image on law-and-order issues; he’s not likely to repeat Dukakis’s mistake of touting a membership in the American Civil Liberties Union. And as Phoenix writer Seth Gitell has noted (see " Veteran’s Day, " News and Features, April 26),Kerry, if he runs, will play up his status as a Vietnam veteran.
But such moves to the center may not matter when none of the other major candidates seems ready to raise the liberal banner. The problem for Kerry is that presidential-primary voters have to base their decisions on something, and if none of the major candidates will own up to an ideological label, then other factors — such as geography — will determine the race.
Looking at the most frequently mentioned possibilities for 2004 (Gore, Lieberman, Gephardt, Edwards, and Kerry), I’m reminded of a Web site I recently visited. The " Belief-O-Matic " (see www.beliefnet.com/story/76/story_7665_1.html) is a questionnaire that supposedly determines which religions most closely match your beliefs. I took the test and discovered that if you punch in liberal views on abortion, homosexuality, and protecting the environment, the Unitarian Universalist Association registers a high score even when those views are combined with a variety of different beliefs on the creation of the earth and the existence of an afterlife. The UU church, the site explains, tolerates " diverse " beliefs on many basic theological questions. Looking at Kerry and the other Democratic contenders, I get the sense that they’re all trying to be the Unitarian Universalist candidate — keeping the faith on a few narrow issues but trying to fudge the really big questions about the roles of government, corporations, and the individual in society.
Of course, Kerry doesn’t have to run as just another noncontroversial UU candidate. Theoretically, there is room for a candidate rooted in the left wing of the Democratic Party, and Kerry’s overall voting record, if not his rhetoric, puts him pretty squarely in that wing. (His threat to mount a filibuster if the Senate tries to approve oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge shows that he still has some promise as a left-wing fighter.) One argument for staying to the left is that if the supporters of Jesse Jackson in 1988 and Jerry Brown in 1992 were combined, they would make up a sizable block — probably more than 40 percent — of the primary vote. The problem is that their constituencies barely overlapped. Jackson and Brown both carried San Francisco, but aside from a few college towns, they didn’t carry the same areas anywhere else in the country. The majority-black counties across the South that supported Jackson’s attempts to shake up the system ignored Brown when he tried some of the same rhetoric. (The same thing happened in New York City’s minority neighborhoods.) Conversely, most of the Northern counties that backed Brown’s pro-environment, anti-NAFTA crusade in 1992 — affluent suburbs and a few union strongholds such as Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Sheboygan, Wisconsin — had no use for Jackson when he read off the same page. In both cases, geographic roots trumped ideology: Bill Clinton may have dissed rap singer Sister Souljah and voiced disagreements with Jackson, but he had no trouble connecting with African-Americans (a majority of whom, as a recent poll showed, disapprove of the music anyway) across the political spectrum, and with Southerners of both races. Mike Dukakis may have put everyone to sleep by emphasizing " competence " over ideology, but he owned almost all the voters who would support the more explicitly liberal " Governor Moonbeam " four years later.
Jackson and Brown each tried to slice off half the Democratic cake — only to discover that the cake had already been divided lengthwise. They could get the left half of the South or the left half of the North, but not both. Emphasizing health care and campaign-finance reform, Bill Bradley tried to put both pieces together in 2000, but his failure will probably dissuade anyone from renewing the attempt in three years.
Still, Kerry could surprise us all by trying to develop a new liberal philosophy for the Democratic Party, one that would stop the party’s swing to the right on economic issues that began under Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. Such a campaign would face long odds, but it would force the presidential-primary candidates to deal with substantive issues, and it might put a few cracks in the Southern coalition that has determined party nominees for most of the past three decades. More likely, though, we’ll get a Kerry campaign that tries to please everyone — and if that’s the case, it just might wilt in the heat of Dixie.
Robert David Sullivan is a freelance writer living in Boston. He can be reached at Robt555@aol.com
Issue Date: August 23 - 30, 2001