On the 2004 Presidential Elections

The Worst of Times: A Tale of Two Conventions

by Joe Auciello

An old advertising adage says, “If you can’t sell the steak, sell the sizzle.” That, in a sentence, sums up Bush’s reelection strategy. His will be a campaign that puts a spin on promises for the future because Bush’s past record is a dismal failure—at least for a majority of Americans.

An August CBS poll showed that a slim majority disapproved the president’s handling of the Iraq war. The most recent national census (2003) reveals the poverty level has increased for the second year. Now 1 in 12 Americans—35.9 million—live below the official poverty line. Eleven million of the poor are children. About 45 million Americans lack health insurance. The number of long-term unemployed has tripled in three years. That is, almost two million workers who have been thrown out of a job have not been able to find work for more than a year. Hiring is stagnant, and those fortunate enough to find new jobs earn less than they did before. In addition, federal government welfare and assistance programs have been cut under Presidents Clinton and Bush, so the social safety net is smaller.

For those fortunate enough to have a job, median household income has declined only slightly—but 2003 marked four years in a row of declining income. Workers on the lowest rungs of the economy have suffered the most.

But whether the state of the economy is good or bad depends on where you stand. The U.S. economy grew 4.4 percent last year, and corporate profits boomed. The Associated Press reported a comment by Heather Boushey, an economist for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, “This economic recovery has not been good for workers.” It has, however, been a very good economy for the corporate sponsors and lobbyists that are tied to Republicans and Democrats alike.

To win the election, President Bush will have to ignore the reality and spin tales of fantasy and make-believe.

No candidate can honestly promise that “help is on the way,” though both Bush and Kerry make that claim. The federal deficit and the cost of the Iraq war will prevent new money flowing into programs that could have helped the poor and needy in America. The margin for social reform is shrinking.

Because so little can be said about the president’s record, the keynote speakers at the Republican National Convention diverted attention from that subject and praised Bush—loudly and persistently—for the supposed virtues of his character. They constituted a chorus of approval that pledged devotion to the false image they conjured.

Bush was lauded as “firm,” “strong,” “unwavering,” “committed, “compassionate,” “courageous,” etc.

At the same time, these keynote speakers condemned Kerry’s character in prime time (“weak,” “waffling”), and their surrogates smeared him in commercials.

The sum total of misleading suggestion, innuendo, quotes out of context, and outright lies had an effect. Kerry’s overall approval rating against Bush slipped several crucial points right after the Republican convention. This may be sufficient to determine the presidential election.

As could be expected, Bush’s acceptance speech to the Republican delegates was short on steak and long on sizzle. With “compassionate conservative” rhetoric, Bush delivered a set of slogans and promises designed to please the party faithful and woo undecided voters. Bush presented himself as the candidate who would “prevail” over terrorism and “extend the frontiers of freedom.” At the same time, the president-select vowed to continue tax cuts, to create more jobs, “to stand with workers in poor communities,” to build “seven million more affordable homes,” and, overall, pave the way to increased economic security in the future. Bush vowed in his next term to do the very things he has not done in this term.

The Republican campaign sells patriotism and promises, fear and fantasy. It hopes voters will buy this bill of goods without looking too closely at the product.

In the world America is more hated than before; workers are less secure on their jobs; class divisions have widened. The rich and well-to-do (or as Bush has called them, “the haves and the have mores—my base”) continue to prosper while the working class and poor continue to suffer. It is the best of times and the worst of times.

As a Vietnam veteran, John Kerry must know something about the value of camouflage. That is why, in anticipation of Republican attacks, in his acceptance speech before the Democratic National Convention last July, Kerry presented himself as a Republican. And not just any Republican. Kerry’s acceptance speech bore an eerie resemblance to the 1968 acceptance speech delivered by the late Richard M. Nixon.

Of course, Kerry would never admit to such a thing. But an analysis of his speech and his overall campaign platform cannot help but lead to the conclusion that Kerry has taken his major themes from Nixon.

The similarities go far beyond the obligatory pride-in-America and love-for-this-great-nation platitudes. On major foreign policy issues: war, negotiations, peace, Kerry echoed Nixon. On major domestic issues: jobs, government finance and budget, and the positive value of a robust American capitalism, Kerry echoed Nixon.

Standing before the entire country, John Kerry accepted his party’s nomination as candidate for president and declared his loyalty to conservative values and conservative social policies. This unexpected declaration was both startling and sincere.

Republicans, though, were appalled to find that Kerry shared their values.

Immediately the Republican attack squad, notably Newt Gingrich and Rudy Giuliani, swung into gear. Appearing on all the major news programs, they denounced Kerry as a “liberal”—“the most liberal voting record in the Senate” and, even worse, “more liberal than Ted Kennedy.”

Conservative columnists and Fox News commentators promptly fell into line, joined the bleating, and hurled the “L-word” at Kerry. The shouting was so persistent and so loud that anyone could be excused for believing it.

But Republicans should not automatically reject Kerry; rather, they might want to embrace him. Kerry speaks for the social values and political policies that for decades have defined the Republican Party.

The following words could well be Kerry’s—they certainly meld with his acceptance speech—but the actual words are Richard Nixon’s:

“But if the war is not ended when the people choose in November, the choice will be clear. Here it is.

“…this administration has had at its disposal the greatest military and economic advantage that one nation has ever had over another in any war in history.

“…America’s fighting men have set a record for courage and sacrifice unsurpassed in our history.

“…Never has so much military and economic and diplomatic power been used so ineffectively.

“And if after all of this time and all of this sacrifice and all of this support there is still no end in sight, then I say the time has come for the American people to turn to new leadership—not tied to the mistakes and the policies of the past. That is what we offer America

“I say the time has come for other nations in the Free World to bear their fair share of the burden of defending peace and freedom around this world.

“What I call for is not a new isolationism. It is a new internationalism in which America enlists its allies and its friends around the world in those struggles in which their interest is as great as ours…

“…After an era of confrontation, the time has come for an era of negotiation.”

 These were the words that Republican presidential candidate Richard Nixon spoke in Miami in August 1968.

Senator Kerry, for his part, adopted the language and ideas promoted by Nixon and, for decades, by the Republican Party. Kerry, for instance, claimed, “I know what we have to do in Iraq. We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers.

Kerry’s speech was stuffed with the watchwords of old-time Republican ideology: “for a balanced budget,” “cut the deficit,” “fiscal responsibility,” “build a stronger American military,” “values that unite us. Family and faith. Hard work and responsibility,” “make America stronger at home and more respected in the world…an America that controls its own destiny.”

Richard Nixon could not have said it better. If the former Republican president were alive today, he just might find himself a Kerry supporter.

In a famous aphorism, Karl Marx aptly defined the platform of the Democratic presidential nominee. “The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” John Kerry is hiding the truth, after all, not about his service record in Vietnam but about his political ancestry. The sinister presence of Richard Nixon, risen from the grave like a specter haunting the Democrats, looms over the sagging shoulders of Senator Kerry.

Columnist Christopher Hitchens dismissed the Kerry speech as “a fairly familiar version of Democratic consensualism” (New York Times Book Review, Aug. 15, 2004). If true, this comment only reveals the extent to which the Democrats have shifted to the right.

Today, the party of reform—reform, that is, within the framework of capitalism—is no longer the Democratic Party; it is the Green Party, or the forces represented by the Ralph Nader/Peter Camejo ticket. The Democrats today are the Republicans of yesterday; the failed campaigns of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich testify to this transformation. As for the Bush Republicans, liberal columnist Jim Hightower calls them “insane” and “nutballs” (In These Times, Aug. 30, 2004). But it would be more accurate to define them as a far-right group that has successfully taken over and redefined the Republican Party.

The real but lesser differences between Bush and Kerry should not obscure their major similarities. This is more than a matter of agreement on trade and war. Bush and Kerry both appeal to and reinforce the myth that a single powerful individual makes fundamental decisions that determine the fate of the country.

In fact, both men, both parties, zealously serve a powerful class and a powerful social system. Both Bush and Kerry faithfully support the immediate and long-term needs of capitalism. They differ only on the best, the most effective, means of continuing the exploitation of the oppressors over the oppressed.

What choice, then, do workers have in this election? The best choice is to register a protest vote for socialism by casting a ballot for one of the socialist parties.

Karl Marx answered this question clearly as long ago as 1850: “Even where there is no prospect of their election, the workers must nominate their own candidates, to preserve their independence, to estimate their strength and to publicize their revolutionary position and party standpoint…The progress which the proletarian party must make through such an independent line of action is infinitely more important than the disadvantages arising from the presence of a few reactionaries in the representative assembly.”

The answer to the crisis of this election is to support and build a party of the working class.