John or John

Feb. 19, 2004

Is there a substantive difference between John Kerry and John Edwards? You wouldn’t know it from the issue-free media coverage. CBS touches on issues in 21.4 percent of its campaign coverage, 33.4 percent for ABC, and 32 percent for NBC, according to a study by MediaChannel.org, which must have been extremely generous in defining a story as dealing with issues.

Still, you might know that Edwards is younger and better looking, and you might get the impression that the media has decided that seeing Edwards pull ahead will be a more exciting horse race than watching Kerry coast along. And that – what the media wants – is usually all that matters.

Still, just for the heck of it, I thought I’d try to find out what it might mean for our jobs, schools, health care, farms, etc., for one of these guys to be in the White House, and whether one of them might be in any way preferable to the other.

I shouldn’t call the media issue-free. After all, they have told us that Edwards is against NAFTA. But what does that mean? (Full disclosure: I was from September 2003 through January 2004 the press secretary for Dennis Kucinich for President.) Kucinich repeatedly challenged all of the other candidates to commit to repealing NAFTA. Rev. Al Sharpton was the only one who ever made that commitment. So, Edwards is against NAFTA and against repealing it, whatever that means.

The media has also told us that Edwards is more “moderate” than Kerry. What does that mean? They both voted for the war. They both supported President Bush’s claims regarding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. They both want to continue the occupation of Iraq. They both voted for the “PATRIOT Act.” They both want to maintain the current health care system of HMOs and for-profit insurance. They both refuse to defend same-sex marriage. Neither one is proposing free preschool and college. Neither one is offering a WPA-type jobs program. Neither one will make any cuts at the Pentagon. Neither one, in other words, is Dennis Kucinich. But the media has decided to call Kerry the liberal one and Edwards the moderate, which would seem to mean – if nothing else — that the media plans to have Edwards win.

I did a search in Google News for John Edwards today. The first article that came up was by a Chicago Tribune reporter who liked the view of Edwards from behind as he ran on a tread mill but who somehow failed to include any indication of what Edwards would do as president. The second article, from CBS, said Edwards had a “central message of economic hardship” and was “more moderate,” but did not elaborate or give any indication of what Edwards might or might not do if elected. The third article told me that Edwards claimed he would have opposed NAFTA had he been in Congress 10 years ago. But how does that even qualify as a position? And why is the question never asked: What would you do about NAFTA if elected president this year? The fourth article was issue-free. The fifth said Edwards was “against NAFTA.”

I did a search for John Kerry. The first five articles included absolutely nothing on his positions on any issues, which was especially remarkable since one of them was a long complaint that Kerry flip-flops on issues.

All of the blame can’t be placed on the media. These candidates themselves, especially Edwards, don’t exactly push their issues out there. I can’t count the number of times I’ve screamed at Edwards’ image on TV. He’ll say: “I want to propose a positive vision for the country.” I’ll scream: “Well propose it! What is it?!” Especially a candidate with only five years in public service and one of those years spent campaigning needs to tell us his plans, not just that he has them.

With Kerry I more often cringe in discomfort as he tries to run against his own record while touting his experience. So often he’s seemed to want his speaking time in debates to end so that he wouldn’t have to say anything more. But he’s not as good at saying nothing as Edwards is. Edwards almost sounds as if he is saying something. He reminds me of Ronald Reagan.

And yet, the media has insisted for the past year on giving these candidates lots of attention, including Edwards when he was nowhere in the polls. For much of 2003, both Kucinich and Edwards were stuck in the low-to-mid single digits in both national and Iowa-only polls. Journalists might have written Edwards off as a long-shot and stopped covering his campaign. Instead, pundit Joe Klein called Kucinich a “vanity” candidate while labeling Edwards and Joe Lieberman “serious candidates who have yet to catch fire.” The pattern of media coverage showed that many journalists held similar attitudes. Edwards received respectful coverage, not to mention newspaper endorsements, in the months leading up to the Iowa caucuses.

The main way in which issues have squeezed into the media coverage is through the Associated Press, which has asked each campaign for short answers to questions and published the responses. Here’s a website with all the responses (of course, many important questions were not asked): http://newslink.nandomedia.com/NandoTimes/politics/election/issues/

A review of the AP answers by the two Johns shows the following. Both Johns take similar strong positions that contrast with Bush on school vouchers, on immigrants’ rights, on veterans’ rights, on health savings accounts, on balancing the budget, and on gun laws. Both Johns favor an identical pathetically small adjustment to the minimum wage. Both Johns give vague non-answers that still sound better than Bush on the Kyoto climate change treaty, on trade agreements, and on sanctions against Cuba.

On the question of civil unions for same-sex couples (the question did not ask about marriage) Kerry said he strongly supported that right, while Edwards said he supported such rights but was careful to indicate he wanted it left up to states. On the question of volunteer service, Kerry offered a more substantive and specific answer, while Edwards – among other things – suggested more neighborhood watches as a “homeland security effort.”

On the question of color-coded terrorist threat warnings, Kerry proposed to reimburse communities for the additional security costs, while Edwards proposed expanding the idea and making it region-specific. And Kerry said he opposes the death penalty in more cases than Edwards did. So Kerry comes off as a little more progressive on a few points. But on the question of the 2001 tax cuts, both say they will repeal the tax cuts that went to the super-wealthy, while Edwards adds that he will offer new tax cuts to 95 percent of Americans.

A second media source of a little bit longer statements on the issues is the PBS News Hour website at http://www.votebyissue.org/primary/ On this site, you can read the candidates’ answers to issues questions, or you can take a quiz in which you pick your favorite answers without knowing until afterward which candidates they came from. The quiz part of the site only includes candidates who are still in the race, plus Howard Dean who will presumably be removed soon. Here’s a quick comparison of Kerry and Edwards based on PBS:

Both Johns agree on Social Security, opposing privatization, means testing, or raising the retirement age (though both also fail to propose restoring it to 65). They agree on partial repeal of some of the abuses of the “PATRIOT Act,” leaving others in place.

Both Johns speak of poverty and homelessness with the insight and empathy typical of a Republican. Both claim the 1996 demolition of welfare has been a success. Edwards puts some of the blame for poverty on fathers, some of it on teens who get pregnant (he thinks a national media campaign will help with that problem), and he says – I kid you not – ” we also must address the root causes of homelessness such as substance abuse and mental illnesses.” Nowhere does he mention the cost of housing. Both Johns say they will provide child care, health care, education, and job training. Edwards throws in – as he seems to do on most issues – tax credits. Kerry at least connects homelessness to the problem of finding affordable housing.

Both Johns would enforce current trade agreements and proceed with the Free Trade Area of the Americas but include labor and environmental protections in it. Both would, rather alarmingly, give tax breaks to corporations to keep jobs in America. ” I will give a 10 percent tax cut to corporations that produce goods here and keep jobs at home,” says Edwards. (That will probably drain the public treasury but not be very influential.) Both Johns will close the offshore PO Box loophole. Edwards says he will stop at the border any goods produced in highly abusive conditions, but does not explain how he will square this with NAFTA and the WTO. Kerry says he will review all of our trade agreements for 120 days, as if the loss of millions of jobs had not yet registered with him. Kerry does plan retraining programs to help displaced workers find new jobs.

The two Johns basically agree on Iraq and Afghanistan. Edwards would try to involve NATO and the UN in Iraq. Kerry would try to create a larger multinational force under US command. Edwards, however, says he will “establish an independent oversight commission to ensure that the contract process is competitive, fair, and transparent.” (Independent of whom is, I guess, the key question.) Both want more NATO troops in Afghanistan.

When it comes to the question of rebuilding Iraq, both want the UN to take control. And here Kerry speaks to the contracting question, saying he’ll allow European corporations to win contracts.

Edwards promises to fight terrorism while cooperating with allies and to promote democracy in the Middle East. Kerry says the same but also says he will “ensure that Saudi reforms are real and reduce our dependence on foreign oil,” appoint a senior-level Presidential Envoy to the [Israeli-Palestinian] Peace Process, and put nonproliferation at the top of the agenda.

Edwards will address the health care crisis with – you guessed it – tax credits, plus increased federal funding. Kerry will do the same.

On gun control and gay rights they say the same things on PBS as they said in the AP.

On energy and the environment, they both provide similar strong platforms that contrast with Bush. Kerry’s is the most specific in its promises (albeit over 10 or 16 years): “I’ll make the U.S. independent of Middle East oil in ten years-and create 500,000 jobs by investing in renewable energy sources, such as ethanol, solar, and wind. And we’ll use renewable fuels to produce 20% of our electricity by 2020.”

On employment, the only thing new here from Edwards is: “My REACH Fund and Economic Revitalization Zones will bring venture capital and management expertise to create businesses in rural and urban areas that are losing jobs today.” Kerry adds to what he’s said elsewhere, that he will create a “State Tax Relief and Education Fund that will help states with $50 billion over two years to stop the education cuts, tuition increases and tax raising that are inhibiting our economic growth, causing layoffs and hurting families,” and a “College Opportunity Tax Credit that will make four years of college affordable for all Americans.”

On the economy, the only thing new here is Edwards’ promise that “tax credits will help families buy their first home and save and invest.”

On education, both Johns say they would fully fund No Child Left Behind. Kerry, really getting into the tax-credits-fix-anything groove laid down by Edwards says, “I’ll ensure that young people have a place to go after school with increased funding and a new After-School tax credit to help millions of parents.” Meanwhile Edwards says he’ll give college scholarships to students willing to teach where they’re needed most, and “expand after school centers and early childhood education