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Who Is Kerry Edwards, and What Is He Running For?

Jane Sherman

The first Kerry Edwards yard sign appeared on my street last week, ironically, just as the president was parlaying his Unreality TV moment into a double-digit lead in the latest Time and Newsweek polls. My reaction to the sign was reflexive: never heard of him.

Aside from making out in public with women who are not his wife, John Kerry has so far seized every opportunity within reach to ensure a Bush win in November. No Democratic presidential candidate since FDR in 1932 has been feted with such a rich smorgasbord of incumbent Republican disaster. And W's résumé is substantially worse than Hoover's, since it includes not only domestic economic outrages (tax cuts designed for the wealthiest 1 percent, staggering deficits, worse-than-stagnant employment reports) but also a fabricated foreign invasion that has now cost over a thousand American lives as well as tens of billions of dollars, an unseemly portion of which has gone to Bush/Cheney pals in the energy sector.

The question was never whether this election would be a referendum on Bush--that was bound to be the case--but whether John Kerry and the Democrats would be the ones telling that story to the people. And what has happened? Kerry on the Bush tax cuts: I am not a tax-and-spend liberal! Kerry on the economy: There's this offshore tax break I'd eliminate. Kerry on Iraq: I would conduct needless and immoral foreign invasions more responsibly. Kerry on Bush/Cheney cronyism: Huh?

It's impossible to see how diehard partisans of the Democrats can endure this campaign without learning a thing or two, but they seem to be holding up thus far. Their collective wailings fall along two main lines: Kerry is regrettably timid, or Kerry is hewing to the "middle" to woo those fabled centrist swing voters. Indeed, some true-blue Dems (the clinically delusional ones) still rise to defend Kerry's craven non-strategy of standing back in the weeds while Bush, theoretically, sinks Bush.

There's just one trouble with all three critiques: They assume that the men and women charting the course of the Democratic Party are some of the dumbest people on earth. Can they not see that this election offers dramatic and even unprecedented potential for galvanizing anti-Republican reaction and bringing new voters out of the woodwork?

Of course they can see this. They refuse to act on it because new blood would mean new demands of a very old sort on a political machine that has spent the past generation trying to rid itself of public association with "special interests" such as labor, minorities, greens--the people. Who needs the headache of taking them back aboard? Better to keep on flouting them and hope they will vote for you anyway out of desperation. The voters that Democrats thereby leave on the table are their traditional base. But no more.

But they could win so easily. Yes. So what? Given the choice between winning what might prove an unruly victory and running yet another me-too campaign that will likely lose (but without upsetting their real base, which consists largely of the same funding sources as the Republicans'), they take the second path every time. The Democrats are not stupid. They are cynical. They have no interest in changing the rules of the game, and toward that end they are even more loath than Republicans to invite new people into the "process."


The Unbearable Lightness of Polling

One of the unremarked lessons of 2004 concerns the fallibility of the pollster's craft. For months the spread from poll to poll has been strikingly wide. At one point in August, Gallup released a poll with Bush leading 50 to 47 nationally within days of a Zogby survey that put Kerry up 50 to 43. I can't remember another election in which two major firms diverged by 10 points at this juncture in a presidential campaign. And last week John Zogby once again took issue with his confreres for overestimating Bush's standing. If you take a moment to look past the numbers and the shoptalk, his comments offer an insight about the wide discrepancy between polls this year, and the ultimate arbitrariness of opinion polls:

Both Time's 52 to 41 lead among likely voters and Newsweek's 54 to 43 lead among registered voters give the President a healthy 11 point lead. I have not yet been able to get the details of Time's methodology but I have checked out Newsweek's poll. Their sample of registered voters includes 38 percent Republican, 31 percent Democrat and 31 percent Independent voters. If we look at the three last Presidential elections, the spread was 34 percent Democrats, 34 percent Republicans and 33 percent Independents (in 1992 with Ross Perot in the race); 39 percent Democrats, 34 percent Republicans and 27 percent Independents in 1996; and 39 percent Democrats, 35 percent Republicans and 26 percent Independents in 2000. While party identification can indeed change within the electorate, there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that Democrats will only represent 31 percent of the total vote this year. In fact, other competitors have gone in the opposite direction. The Los Angeles Times released a poll in June of this year with 38 percent Democrats and only 25 percent Republicans. And Gallup's party identification figures have been all over the place.

In other words, the trouble with the polls this time involves a fundamental problem of definition. Pre-election polls always depend on a set of assumptions about who is and who isn't a "likely voter." But this year--owing to the near-unfathomable combination of a widely despised president who threatens to draw out enormous numbers of people who don't usually vote, and a challenger who seems just as intent on convincing them to stay home--no one has any clear idea of who's going to show up on November 2.

I take Zogby more seriously than the rest. His analyses are more cogent and far-reaching than the others, and his firm came closest to predicting the final outcome in both 1996 and 2000. Current Zogby numbers as of last Friday gave Bush a 46 to 44 lead in a two-way race and a 46 to 43 edge with Nader et al. included. He points out that Bush is still running net negatives on job performance, deserving reelection, and the direction of the country. Lest this seem inordinately cheery news to Democrats, however, Zogby adds: "For the first time in my polling this year, Mr. Bush lined up his Republican ducks in a row by receiving 90 percent support of his own party, went ahead among Independents, and now leads by double-digits among key groups like investors. Also for the first time the President now leads among Catholics. Mr. Kerry is on the ropes."

About three months ago I started betting friends and colleagues $5 that the polls were missing the volume and intensity of anti-Bush sentiment in the land, and that Kerry would win by a margin that few if any of the pre-election surveys foresaw. Stupid me. The betting window is hereby closed. I made the wager knowing that Kerry would run a lackluster campaign, but I had--still have--the hunch that there is enough Bush-hate out there to overcome a multitude of sins on the Democrats' part. Fatalistic as I am, though, I did not bargain on the worst campaign ever run by a Democratic presidential candidate. Kerry is worse than a doormat; a doormat doesn't disappear from your stoop for months at a time. When the Republicans began their loud, dishonest, and largely unanswered assault on Kerry's war record last month, one of the questions bandied around was whether John Kerry had ever been in Cambodia during the Vietnam war, as he claimed. It would have been more germane to ask, How do we know he's not still there?

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