Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Edwards's unheard message

Boston Globe
Edwards's unheard message

By Joan Vennochi, Globe Columnist | September 14, 2004

DICK CHENEY, the dour vice president with the downward-curling lip, is clobbering Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards.

Everyone knew that Edwards brought good looks and charisma to the Democratic ticket. But the one-term senator and trial lawyer from North Carolina supposedly offered more. During the primary season, Edwards delivered a stump speech that made liberals' eyes mist: There are two Americas, he said, the haves and the have-nots, the people buying $800 Manolo Blahnik pumps at Neiman Marcus versus the people buying flip-flops at Wal-Mart.

As the senior George H.W. Bush would say, "Message: I care." Grafting that message onto the Kerry-Edwards campaign was supposed to make voters forget that neither Kerry nor Edwards is, by necessity, a bargain-hunter.

Cheney snidely sidetracked the Democrats' message with these words: "Kerry says he sees two Americas. It makes the whole thing mutual. America sees two John Kerrys." Then, he threw an even lower blow, warning that if Kerry is elected "the danger is that we'll get hit again."

To that, Edwards said Cheney had "crossed the line . . . This is un-American." Cheney is still smarting over that riposte, don't you think? Meanwhile, Edwards and his economic message are receding into the background.

"In a game of visibility, it's a technical knock-out," says Boston political consultant Joe Baerlein. "Dick Cheney is the designated pitbull. His job is to make news and stir up controversy." He believes the Kerry campaign is deliberately choosing another strategy, using Edwards to make the case to swing voters in select markets, "in a nonpolarizing way."

Nonpolarizing is not the Bush-Cheney way. Their campaign is based on two false premises: that the US invasion of Iraq was necessary because of 9/11; and that Bush cares equally about every American, rich or not-so-rich, and is pushing policies that take care of them equally. If Democrats can't pierce either one of those lies, they don't deserve to beat Bush. So far, they don't deserve to beat Bush.

From his hospital bed before undergoing heart bypass surgery, Bill Clinton told Kerry to forget about Vietnam and talk about health care. But first, Kerry has to talk about Iraq.

Recent polling numbers show that voters care more about protecting the country than creating jobs and they trust the Republicans over the Democrats to do it. According to a recent Newsweek poll, 42 percent of Americans continue to believe Saddam Hussein's regime was directly involved in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. Debunking that mythological connection is not easy. But over the weekend, Kerry's cause was helped by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told "Meet the Press": "I have no indication that there was a direct connection between the terrorists who perpetrated these crimes against us on the 11th of September, 2001, and the Iraqi regime . . . I have seen nothing that makes a direct connection between Saddam Hussein and that awful regime and what happened on 9/11."

Kerry picked up on the theme, telling The New York Times that the administration has "taken their eye off the real ball. They took it off in Afghanistan and shifted it to Iraq. They took it off in North Korea and shifted it to Iraq. They took it off in Russia and the nuclear materials there and shifted it to Iraq."

That at least is a way for Kerry to start reframing the debate and move away from the Vietnam era and his Senate vote authorizing war with Iraq. Now, how about getting more surrogates out there on his behalf on the domestic front?

Edwards is correct, there are two Americas and there are many ways to show it. Poverty is on the rise, fewer people have health care. Stretching income to cover basic costs is more difficult. A recent Businessweek.com article labeled shoppers as "Moneyed vs. Worried." August retail sales showed that discount stores like Wal-Mart, Costco, and Target fell below analysts' forecasts. Some blamed hurricane season, gas prices or the late start of back-to-school shopping. However, the same factors did not impede retail sales at high-end stores. "Wealthy Americans seem unshaken by current economic uncertainties and are still spending their money freely, while consumers in lower income brackets are feeling less secure," Businessweek concluded.

One America is worried about money and jobs. But the guy who turned it into a campaign theme has all but vanished from the front page. As usual, the pitbull wins the headlines.