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Will Kerry's Caution Pay Off at the Polls?

July 25, 2004|Ramesh Ponnuru | Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor at the National Review.

WASHINGTON — Sen. John F. Kerry is, for the most part, running a smart, cautious campaign while leading a party that hates President Bush with reckless passion. Documentary filmmaker Michael Moore is floating crackpot theories about the war in Afghanistan, and the head of the Democratic National Committee is receptive to them. Al Gore says that Abu Ghraib is "an American gulag." Kerry hopes this passion will get Democratic voters to turn out in November -- without his having to embrace these notions. The word has already gone out that speakers at the Democratic National Convention in Boston this week are not to attack the president personally.

Kerry is cautious in other respects. He is saying little about gun control, an issue many Democrats believe lost them crucial votes in Arkansas, Tennessee and West Virginia in 2000. The new Democratic platform even pledges to "protect Americans' 2nd Amendment right to own firearms."

On abortion, Kerry has adopted former President Clinton's mantra that it should be "safe, legal and rare." Kerry has said life begins at conception. He is not giving an inch on policy: Both he and Sen. John Edwards, his choice as a running mate, voted against the ban on partial-birth abortion. But they are trying to gesture toward the ambivalence many voters feel about abortion.

The selection of Edwards was another way of playing it safe on cultural issues. At the start of the year, many Democrats, including Kerry, suggested the party write off the South. Vermont Gov. Howard Dean argued that Democrats could appeal to "guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks" by ignoring their cultural views and addressing their economic concerns. But Kerry now seems to recognize that the South isn't just a place, but a state of mind. It's not just that parts of Missouri, Florida and even Illinois are culturally Southern. It's also that, in the sense of voters who are religious and ambivalent about government, Southerners are everywhere.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Democrats suffered because they became associated in voters' minds with cultural liberalism on issues of sex and family, work and welfare, race and crime, and religion and patriotism. When the conclusion of the Cold War ended a set of political debates that made Democrats look weak, Clinton set out to address the other liabilities systematically. His success, combined with the growth of the affluent, secular and socially liberal segment of the population, increased the size of the Democratic base. It also re-legitimized government activism, which was no longer seen as undermining middle-class values. Now even Republican presidents have to support federal activism.

Kerry seems to be following Clinton's lead in treading carefully on social issues. He has refrained from raising issues that would offend culturally conservative voters (such as gun control) and made rhetorical concessions on others (abortion). But at the same time, he appears to think that Clinton's work is partly done. He has not actually taken on any faction of his party. There has been no "Sister Souljah" moment. Perhaps the calculation is that the Democrats already seem so unthreatening to most people, and that the size of the base has increased enough, that no such moment is necessary. That, in other words, there is no need for welfare reform when welfare has already been reformed. Even a cautious campaign cannot avoid taking some gambles, and that is one of them.

Another gamble is that the public will not associate Kerry with anti-Bush excesses among his allies. A third is that a general perception that the war in Iraq is a failure -- or a tainted enterprise -- will relieve Kerry of the need to get specific about his plans for Iraq and reduce the otherwise daunting Republican advantage on national security.

The Democrats' fourth gamble is nominating, in Kerry, a liberal who seems in some respects to be a poor candidate. Kerry may be tactically moderate but, on policy, both he and Edwards have voted with the liberals in the Senate. The fifth of the population that considers itself liberal may wish Kerry were bolder on, say, the death penalty (which he generally opposes). But his views and theirs are nearly identical. This country has not elected a liberal to the presidency in 40 years -- and never has elected one averse to the use of force abroad.

Kerry's personality seems, in addition, to be off-putting to many people. He won the primaries by being the establishment alternative to a self-destructing Dean, not by inspiring anyone. If he wins the White House, it would be because Democrats started the campaign with the loyalty of nearly half the voters, and Kerry made smart moves to court the remainder, not because people were excited about a Kerry presidency.

The longer-term gamble of the party is demographic. It looks as though the party's base is going to be increasingly composed of voters who are single and who are secular in outlook -- but those voters will remain a minority of the electorate. Can the Democrats continue to straddle the values issues under those circumstances? Maybe not. But so far, judged by how well the Kerry campaign is doing, all these bets appear to be paying off.

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