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• Blind them with science. It was the unlikeliest of rallying cries. At the Democratic convention in Boston, every time anyone mentioned stem-cell research, it was met with sustained, emotional applause. The Democrats devoted an entire speech to the issue, bringing in Ron Reagan to talk about how such research might one day lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, the illness that claimed his father’s life. Toward the end of his acceptance speech, Kerry himself said, "What if we find a breakthrough to cure Parkinson’s, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and AIDS? What if we have a president who believes in science, so we can unleash the wonders of discovery like stem-cell research to treat illness and save millions of lives?" It brought the house down.
Why does this issue resonate so? Because when Democrats talk about stem-cell research, they’re really talking about something else. For Democrats, stem-cell research has become a code phrase to describe the religious right’s retreat from — and even rejection of — modern science. The religious right is a vital part of the Republican coalition; it is inconceivable that Bush could be re-elected without the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells. Karl Rove is working overtime to turn out some four million evangelical voters who supposedly stayed home four years ago. And, of course, Bush himself is a certified member of the religious right, having traded booze for the Bible around the time he turned 40. It was Bush’s decision to place severe limits on embryonic stem-cell research that kicked off the current debate.
From its coddling of creationists to its ambivalence toward the overwhelming scientific consensus that global warming is both real and caused in part by human activities, the Bush administration has managed to place itself at odds not only with its critics but with reality itself. Next thing you know, the Flat Earth Society will begin holding its monthly meetings at the White House.
Last February more than 60 leading scientists, including 20 Nobel laureates, signed a public letter that criticized the Bush administration for politicizing science to further its agenda on global warming, mercury contamination, endangered-species protection, and the like. "The distortion of scientific knowledge for partisan political ends must cease if the public is to be properly informed about issues central to its well-being, and the nation is to benefit fully from its heavy investment in scientific research and education," the letter states. It is a breathtaking indictment; yet it seemed to disappear after one or two days of headlines. This is an issue that the Kerry campaign should do everything in its power to revive.
• Reach out to the middle. Actively pursuing moderate voters doesn’t mean abandoning liberal principles. It does mean building the sort of center-left coalition needed to win an election. Despite the Republicans’ best efforts to portray Kerry as a radical, he is the very definition of a mainstream politician. It is Bush who is the true radical — on civil liberties, on foreign policy, on the environment, on reproductive choice. Yet Kerry and other critics appear unable to get that message across.
Voters, though, sense that something is amiss. According to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted just before the Republican convention, "The same policies that have secured his [Bush’s] conservative base and given him a slight lead in the presidential race are now complicating his bid to win over crucial undecided voters." The poll found that 79 percent of self-described conservatives who were surveyed approved of the job Bush was doing, but 55 percent of "persuadable voters" disapproved. Sixty percent of independents said the country was headed in the wrong direction.
What this suggests is that one of the most-often-heard clichés of the campaign is true: that the Republicans are more interested in driving up turnout among their base — including those four million evangelicals — than in appealing to undecided voters. According to Boston-based Democratic political consultant Dan Payne, a veteran of past Kerry and Dukakis campaigns, the way for Kerry to move in on centrist turf is to persuade potential voters that Bush is simply too out of the mainstream to be president.
"There’s a radical agenda being pursued in the Bush administration. That’s hard to reveal. It reveals itself periodically when [Attorney General John] Ashcroft speaks, or when Cheney is allowed to just sort of wing it," Payne says. "People, I think, don’t understand that this is some fairly fundamental stuff that’s being tampered with." The challenge for Kerry is to make the case for Bush’s radicalism.
In the "This Land" parody at Jibjab.com, the virtual Kerry refers to Bush as "a right-wing nut-job." Perhaps the real Kerry ought to try the same line.
MARY ANNE MARSH has been watching Kerry for a long time. A Democratic analyst and commentator for the Fox News Channel, Marsh worked on every Kerry campaign from 1982 through 1996. "I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better," she says.
One challenge facing Kerry this time, she says, is that because he took so long to respond to the swift-boat ads, he now has to fight two battles at once. "First and foremost, Kerry has to hit Bush harder than he’s been hit, and they have to put Bush on the defensive," Marsh says. "At the same time, Kerry has to define himself and raise himself up and show people that he’s somebody who can protect this country when it comes to security, and lead it forward on jobs and health care and everything else." With time so short, she explains, "you have to run it like a two-track strategy. [Kerry has] to put Bush on the defensive, lay the case out there, and make the case for himself."
Marsh adds: "I’m confident Kerry can do it. We’ve seen him do it in the past."
Well, yes and no. We’ve seen him come back to win tough races against the likes of Jim Shannon, a young congressman; Bill Weld, a popular governor trying to buck the Clinton re-election tide; and Howard Dean, who imploded weeks before his Iowa scream put the final exclamation point on his presidential campaign.
Perhaps we’ll see Kerry come back to defeat George W. Bush as well. But Bush is a man who, in 2000, was able to trounce John McCain, perhaps the most popular politician in the country, with a combination of overt appeals to conservatives and covert, false attacks on McCain’s personal life.
Kerry already has seen how the swift-boat veterans, sharing Texas ties to Bush and to Karl Rove, were able to turn his Vietnam heroism into a negative, even as Bush and Cheney were not being held accountable for avoiding combat during the Vietnam era.
To win, Kerry is going to have to fight back, to defend his own record and reputation, and to offer some new ideas so that voters will have a reason to abandon an incumbent president in the midst of a war. By all indications, Kerry has begun to move on both fronts. In less than two months, we’ll know whether it’s enough.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.page 1 page 2 page 2 page 3
Issue Date: September 10 - 16, 2004
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