Focus on "Electability" in Primaries Is Sure Paying off

Sep. 20, 2004

If you live in the majority of the states in the United States, you’re being handed two candidates to choose from for president without much say in the matter from you. You have very little control over what Bush promises, and probably little capacity left to believe him anyway. And you, therefore, have little control over what Kerry promises, since he tends to shape his positions around Bush’s, either by agreeing with Bush entirely, by staking out a position slightly less extreme than Bush’s, or by alternating between the two until you can’t tell what Kerry’s position is. Nonetheless, you have to choose between these two or “protest” by staying home or voting for a third candidate. In my view, there remain a number of positions on which Kerry has a clear enough position superior enough to Bush’s to win my nose-pinching support (more on those below).

But if you live in one of the many states that held caucuses or a primary early in the season, before Kerry had enough votes to claim the nomination, your position is quite different. Either you did not vote and did not campaign for a candidate, in which case you deserve the two choices you’ve been handed. You have no right to complain or to not vote for the lesser of two evils. You brought it on yourself. And this includes in particular those of you who maintained from the start that the Democratic Party was hopeless and who now act like you’ve been vindicated. You are complicit in what you condemn, my friends. Or you did vote, in which case chances are that you voted for Kerry, in which case everything I just said goes double for you, and I’d like to stop for a minute with you and rethink “electability” and “momentum.”

Iowans chose in their caucuses the candidate whom the media said was most “electable.” It’s important never to forget that the media turned on Dean and questioned his stability before, not just immediately after, Iowa, as well as having already blacked out Kucinich, Sharpton, and Mosley-Braun. Obedient Iowans chose to be “pragmatic” and to do “what was needed to win.” But to win what? To win the nomination as the designated loser to Bush?

By the time the good voters of New Hampshire had a chance to vote, the media was advising them to vote for the candidate with the “momentum,” in other words, the guy who had won in Iowa. And people actually chose to do so, to vote with the goal of being able to say that they had personally voted for the guy who won the nomination, which is not the same thing as being able to say you voted for the guy with the best chance of beating Bush if nominated, or of saving the Democratic Party from its self-loathing implosion.

But just as Kerry voted for the war because the media told him he’d have to if he wanted to run for President, Democrats voted for Kerry because they were told they had no choice if they wanted a Democrat who was “electable.” But for a media that consistently prefers Republicans to call a Democrat “electable” would be suspect even if there were some discernable meaning to the label. You’ll notice that the same media is now trying to paint Kerry as “unelectable”, and that Kerry is playing along by doing everything he can to turn off people who might vote for him.

Are we having second thoughts about voting for “electability” yet? While we do need to focus some of our attention now on getting Kerry elected despite himself, we ought also to stop and consider whether we’ll allow ourselves to be railroaded to the right during the next primaries.

A recent column by Alexander Cockburn does a good job of laying out the endless issues on which Kerry and Bush agree (although Bush owns the positions and attracts voters with them, while Kerry merely turns his potential voters off). Everything from the mythical weapons of mass destruction and the future of the war, to policy toward Israel, bin Laden, Afghanistan, abortion, basic health care policy, the Federal Reserve, trade agreements, economic redistribution, the military budget, the war budget, the World Bank and IMF, the war on drugs, the prison explosion, campaign finance, the PATRIOT Act – it’s all off the table. And yet, while Kucinich had a strong position in opposition to Bush and Kerry on each and every one of these issues, how many columns can anyone remember seeing from Cockburn in support of Kucinich?

Oh, right, Kucinich was “unelectable.” But he was unelectable by unargued decree. Kerry is now unelectable by extended argument. Can’t we recognize the difference? Kucinich was never “unelectable” because of his positions. Nobody ever learned what his positions were.

The difficulties would have been different, but in the end Kucinich as the Democratic nominee could have kicked Bush’s ass. Many of the weaknesses of the Kucinich campaign (though not the media’s enmity) would have been corrected by all the work now being poured into trying to turn out voters for Kerry. The 527s, the labor unions, ACORN, and all of the Anybody But Bush grassroots groups would have been the same, only stronger. All the small-time volunteer efforts out there breaking their backs and my heart in their selfless efforts to remove Bush would have been there, only with more enthusiasm.

Even as it is, the organizing going on is amazing. Will it be enough to win, with the candidate out there seemingly trying to lose, with the media polishing Bush’s crown, and with people so well trained to obey their televisions over the advice of their neighbors?

U.S. Congressman Raul Grijalva from Arizona is quoted in the Nation magazine as saying “we cannot sanitize the message too much at the risk of losing our core people. Persuading the Independents and so on, well, that’s the job of Kerry’s general campaign. Our job down here is to turn out the base – a very progressive base.”

That strikes me as a curious division of duties. In fact, it’s no division of duties at all, but a conflict waiting for voters to pay attention. If people knock on your door and tell you Kerry is for working families, but you see Kerry on TV supporting corporate trade and illegal wars, how do you vote? Or do you, like the hungry donkey frozen between two piles of hay, unable to move away from either of them, remain planted on your couch participating in the election as a television viewer?

What I think it’s important not to overlook is that, despite all of Kerry’s shortcomings, he holds position far preferable to Bush’s on several important issues, and holds them far more consistently and credibly than Bush has ever done anything other than remain loyal to the wealthiest interests. For one thing, Bush’s NLRB is trying to eliminate the right to organize a union, while Kerry is cosponsoring a bill that would strengthen that right. A focus on building a movement rather than fooling around with an election between Tweedledum and Tweedledee misses the fact that organizing itself will be given a huge boost if Tweedledee wins and we all keep after him. And the fact that no one kept after Clinton is no proof that no one will keep after Kerry.

Kerry is far more opposed to the death penalty and to the use of torture than is Bush. He has not proposed the same attacks on education, Social Security, or Medicare. Kerry is not making environmental destruction one of his chief goals. Nor is he hell-bent on antagonizing any friends the U.S. has left in the world. His Middle Eastern policy will not be based on a desire to bring about religious prophecies by promoting all-out war. Kerry will adjust the minimum wage at least some pathetically small amount – but that will mean life or death to many families. People working for the minimum wage don’t have the luxury to stay home and remark that Kerry isn’t good enough – although unless someone tells them Kerry’s position many of them will.

Most importantly, Kerry’s positions can be swayed by popular opinion and agitation. This is a good thing in a democracy. Bush lies and reverses himself on a daily basis but has not adjusted his policies one iota in response to the largest peace, women’s rights, fair trade, and immigrants’ rights demonstrations in history. Bush is not someone we can work on.

Kerry is someone we can push toward winning positions now if we try, and whom we can more easily push toward popular positions after he is elected – if he is elected, and if the votes are counted. We have to hold our noses and elect him. Yet we have to pressure him toward winning positions and pressure him as soon as he wins toward popular positions he’s afraid to take now for fear of abandoning the losing strategy of Republican Lite-ism.

Pass the clothespins.

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