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Why John Kerry Lost
by Lee Sustar
November 5, 2004
First Published in Socialist Worker

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How did John Kerry blow it?

George W. Bush led the country into an unpopular war -- based on lies. He handed out tax breaks to the wealthy while millions of workers suffered through recession and a weak recovery. He used the occupation of Iraq to reward corporate cronies while 1,100 U.S. soldiers -- and 100,000 Iraqis, by the latest count -- died for oil profits.

Kerry should have won this election running away. Instead, Bush racked up both an Electoral College win and a 3.6 million vote margin in the popular vote -- enough for the Republicans to claim a mandate, unlike the stolen election of 2000.

In addition, Bush’s Republicans increased their control of Congress, taking three more Senate seats from Democrats--including that of Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle in South Dakota -- and adding five House seats as well. And on a series of ballot measures across the country -- bans on gay marriage and an immigrant-bashing referendum in Arizona -- the right wing won on virtually all counts.

So weak was Kerry’s appeal that the Republicans made inroads into the Democrats’ working-class base. According to CNN exit polls, Bush obtained 44 percent of the Latino vote--up from 33 percent in 2000. Some 42 percent of people with incomes of $15,000 to $30,000 backed Bush--as did 49 percent of those earning $30,000 to $50,000. Bush even managed to increase his African American vote by a couple of percentage points to 11 percent--and the union-busting president got the votes of 36 percent of union members.

In 2000, Ralph Nader was accused of helping to elect Bush by “stealing” votes from Al Gore -- a drumbeat that heard throughout this campaign as well. But this time, there’s no denying that this election was the Democrats’ to lose--and they handed it to Bush and the Republicans.

For the conservatives who run the Democratic Leadership Council--of which Kerry is a member -- their defeat will be taken as evidence that the party is too far to the left, and that Bush won because of his appeal to “moral values.” Typical was New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who declared that “the Democratic Party’s first priority should be to reconnect with the American heartland.”

Yet by any objective measure, George Bush was easily the most beatable incumbent president in a quarter century. “A real-life opposition party would have been insulted to be matched with such an unworthy and frail rival,” wrote left-wing columnist Marc Cooper. “The Democrats, by contrast, got their lights punched out...Think for a moment, if you can bear [to], just how fraudulent the [Democratic] Party has become as a champion for everyday, working Americans.”

From the outset, Kerry’s chasing of conservative “swing voters” put the race on Bush’s terms. That’s why he twisted and turned on the Iraq war--voting to authorize Bush’s invasion, criticizing it during the primaries to cover his left flank and, after clinching the nomination, swinging right once more.

Those who were motivated to oust Bush because of the Iraq war found themselves with a Democratic challenger who pushed his military credentials at the Democratic National Convention--and who declared that he would have backed an invasion of Iraq even if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction.

John Kerry, the former antiwar Vietnam veteran who famously said before the Senate, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” had become John Kerry, the pro-war presidential candidate -- a man who used his campaign to ask many thousands more to kill and be killed in what he admits is the “wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

On the economy, Kerry tried to score points on Bush’s tax handouts to the wealthy--and called for boosting taxes on the very wealthy. But by making tax cuts for corporations and the balancing of the federal budget the centerpieces of his economic policy, Kerry could offer only austerity -- cutbacks in social spending rather than the urgently needed funding for public housing, job creation and anti-poverty programs.

Many liberal commentators have asked why so many workers voted against their interests on economic issues to back Bush. But the question really should be turned around: Why do the Democrats, the supposed party of the people, give working people so little to vote for?

The truth is that Kerry echoed Bush on issue after issue--and nowhere more than Iraq. Kerry repeatedly claimed that he’d run the Iraq occupation “better” than Bush--and endlessly vowed to “kill the terrorists.” As journalist Doug Ireland put it, “Bush won by making the link between Iraq and the war on terrorism -- the Big Lie which Kerry could not effectively counter, because he’d bought into it at the beginning.” Kerry even tried to outflank Bush on the right, accusing the White House of going soft on Iran and North Korea.

Once Kerry and the Democratic Party bosses allowed the Republicans to set the agenda, the left followed right along behind them. The antiwar movement, rather than challenge Kerry on Iraq, quietly joined his electoral operation. The Abu Ghraib torture scandal barely provoked protests in the U.S., and the big demonstration at the Republican National Convention in New York targeted the “Bush agenda” rather than the war and occupation.

All this was justified by antiwar movement leaders as “tactical” -- and their approach relied entirely on Anybody-But-Bush sentiment to turn out the Democrats’ traditional constituencies. Organized labor went much further down this road, pouring tens of millions of dollars into the Kerry operation through various nonprofit groups--but without putting forward the unions’ own agenda.

Because most of the left, unions and antiwar activists backed Kerry without putting any demands on him, the issues that could appeal to working people--both union and nonunion--barely registered in the political debate. The only time the left was aggressive was to attack the independent campaign of Ralph Nader and Peter Camejo for trying to build an alternative to the Democrats.

All that remained of the Kerry campaign was an out-of-touch billionaire claiming that he cared about working people and promising that “hope was on the way” -- even as he positioned himself as Bush Lite. The Democrats were so caught up in their insular world of sound bites and focus-group-driven strategies that they failed to see that Kerry and Edwards’ promise of a $7-an-hour minimum wage -- the same in real terms as 40 years ago -- gave little reason for “hope.”

No wonder that people who might have been convinced otherwise embraced religion or “moral values” to guide their vote -- while others sank into cynicism.

If conservative ideas made inroads in the electorate, it’s because the Kerry Democrats echoed and legitimized those ideas at every turn -- from support for the occupation of Iraq and the “war on terror,” to the homophobic attacks on gay marriage. If these assumptions form the unquestioned basis of acceptable mainstream politics, it shouldn’t be surprising that many people accept them -- and stick with the conservative original, Bush, instead of the copy, Kerry.

An aggressive, mobilized left could have challenged these views and raised crucial issues ignored during the campaign. Instead, prominent leftists and progressives made apologies for Kerry’s terrible positions -- or kept silent -- in the name of Anybody But Bush.

This dynamic shows how -- as the socialist Hal Draper pointed out during the 1968 election campaign -- supporting the “lesser evil” only legitimizes the “evil” politics themselves. “You can’t fight the victory of the rightmost forces by sacrificing your own independent strength to support elements just the next step away from them,” he wrote.

Put another way, you can’t beat something (Bush) with nothing (Kerry). Thus, the Republicans’ get-out-the-vote operation was more successful than the Democrats. The high pro-Kerry turnout some predicted never materialized--in particular, among young voters who were supposed to put Kerry over the top. The only records set for turnout were in the “red,” pro-Bush Southern states. Yet across the U.S., more than 45 percent of the eligible voters -- a disproportionate majority of them working class and poor--didn’t even turn out.

As Ralph Nader put it, “The re-election of George Bush would not have occurred had the Democrats stood up for the needs of the American people. Tens of millions of Americans have been left out of the political process because their needs are being ignored.”

With Bush’s clear victory, the right will be on the rampage -- trying to further curtail or even outlaw abortion, weaken unions, slash social spending and roll back civil liberties. The vote will also be taken as a ratification of the U.S. occupation of Iraq -- and a go-ahead for more imperialist aggression.

The Bush victory will lead to demoralization among many activists. Liberal commentators will blame “backward” of “dumb” ordinary Americans for the right’s success, rather than the Democrats’ disastrous corporate strategies.

Still, as Bush strides to the right, he is sure to overreach--and take actions that will inevitably provoke a response.

This was the case in the so-called “Republican revolution” in 1994, when the Republican leader Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” was turned into a dead letter in a matter of months. It’s critical to remember that it wasn’t Democratic politicians, but the actions of ordinary people that turned the tide -- with a wave of protests across the country sparking a shift in U.S. politics. By the end of his first year as House Speaker, Gingrich was well on his way to becoming the most unpopular politician in the U.S.

We need to learn from that example--and challenge the right’s attacks today.

The impending U.S. attack on Falluja is likely to be as horrific as any of the fighting yet seen--and it highlights the urgency of reigniting the antiwar movement. An antiwar protest in Chicago on November 3 drew some 1,000 people -- and is a promising start.

Bush’s attempts to outlaw abortion must be opposed with action that puts pressure on the politicians. The economy is yet another political minefield for Bush -- and another downturn could quickly undermine his popularity. Organized labor needs to step up the struggle --starting with solidarity for the 14,000 hotel and casino workers on the picket lines in Atlantic City and San Francisco.

The energy and activism that was diverted into the elections for most of this year must be redirected toward putting forward a different agenda.

The Democrats are a dead weight in the struggle for social change. Ending the occupation of Iraq, opposing U.S. militarism, fighting for decent jobs and a real national health care system--all this has to be at the center of rebuilding a left that’s capable of fighting for the interests of working people.

The time to start building that fightback is now.

Lee Sustar writes regularly for Socialist Worker, where this article first appeared. He can be contacted at:

Other Articles by Lee Sustar

* How the Democrats Moved to the Right to Cater to Business
* What’s Driving the Attack on Pensions?
* What the US Has in Store for Iraq
* The Roots of the Resistance
* What’s to Blame for Lost Jobs?
* Bush’s Right-Wing Allies in Spain Defeated after Madrid Bombing
* How Washington Set the Stage for Haiti’s Uprising