America Meets John Kerry


By Richard S. Dunham John Kerry has a lot to say. And he has been waiting a long time to say it. Now we know. He's loves the flag. He loves American values. He is for honesty, integrity, science, and optimism. Hey, and by the way, have you heard he's strong? "We need a strong military, and we need to lead strong alliances," he said in accepting the Democratic nomination for President on July 29.

The Massachusetts senator had so much to say that he kept on talking and talking and talking. For 46 minutes. Worried that Republicans have spent some $90 million to portray him as an extremely liberal flip-flopper from the home state of gay marriages, Kerry spent plenty of time presenting himself as an experienced fighter for hard-working families, a man of faith and common sense, and a staunch defender of the homeland from foreign terrorists and overzealous enemies of civil liberties.

Hey, and by the way, have you heard he's strong? "In these dangerous days," he said, "there is a right way and a wrong way to be strong. Strength is more than tough words."

BETTER FOR FIRST TIMERS. Kerry also had plenty to say about what he'd do as President. For months, the candidate has chafed at charges that he doesn't have specific policy prescriptions for the economy, for winning the peace in Iraq, for rebuilding America's tattered reputation in the world. In response, he chose to outline, at great length, his health insurance plan, his tax plan, his deficit-reduction pledge, his education plan, his energy planall "for a stronger America." That's right. He's strong.

For those who had sat through four nights of Democratic rhetoric pounding away at just those themes, Kerry's speech was the summing up a controversy-free convention. But for viewers just tuning in to the campaign, Kerry's oratory was an effective introduction to the candidate.

From the moment he bounded onto the stage of Boston's FleetCenter to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen's lyrics -- "No retreat, baby, no surrender" -- Kerry was charged up and ready for battle. "They say this is the best economy we've ever had," he declared, referring to Republicans (though he never used that word). "And they say that anyone who thinks otherwise is a pessimist. Well, here is our answer: There is nothing more pessimistic than saying America can't do better. We can do better, and we will. We're the optimists."

"VALUING FAMILIES." Kerry was at his best when he offered what's euphemistically called "contrast" with the current Administration. (Others call it "attack.") Here's one highlight that brought the partisan crowd to its feet: "I will be a Commander-in-Chief who will never mislead us into war. I will have a Vice-President who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a Secretary of Defense who will listen to the advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an Attorney General who will uphold the Constitution of the United States."

Kerry would not give an inch to Republicans on the GOP's signature issue, family values. Citing Republican cuts to after-school programs and community policing, among other perceived slights by the Bush Administration, he roared: "It is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."

The skillful way Kerry criticized without directly attacking the President was reminiscent of George W. Bush's own well-delivered acceptance speech at the Republican convention in Philadelphia four years ago. This time, Kerry even turned the tables on Bush by borrowing a theme from Bush 2000: "As President, I will restore trust and credibility to the White House."

STEADFAST RESOLVE. If the rhetoric veered from grandiose to wonkish, it was because Kerry had so much he wanted to say in what was for many Americans their first full meeting. The nominee was at his most passionate when he talked about trust and credibility and the American dream. But he also dealt in subtle tones, as he did with GOP charges that he flip-flops.

"Now I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities -- and I do -- because some issues aren't that simple," he argued. "Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming 'Mission Accomplished' certainly doesn't make it so."

To those who see him as a serial waffler, he used the 9/11 Commission's report as an example of his steadfast resolve to act: "As President, I will not evade or equivocate."

PRIMARY TARGET. But the speech also had a few groaners and wince-inducing phrases, like calling trees "cathedrals of nature." And who had the idea that "help is on the way" is an inspiring slogan? The Democratic crowd -- liberally salted with public-school teachers and other government employees -- loved it, waving signs with the message and chanting along every time Kerry used the phrase. But for conservative and moderate voters, "Help is on the way" may resurrect that cynical old joke: "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help you."

Kerry isn't going to change a lot of minds with his speech -- but he doesn't need to. Nine out of 10 Americans already know who they're voting for. Committed Republicans will probably see his speech as little more than insincere pabulum from a two-faced liberal, telling voters what he thinks they want to hear. Democrats will leave the scene of the Boston Tea Party more fired up than ever to end the divisive reign of the man they derided as "the new King George."

The primary target of Kerry's oratorical efforts was a small but decisive bloc of undecided voters. Most likely, these swing voters will swing, at least for the few weeks, to the Democrat. That's reflected in the first survey to reflect the Dems' show of unity, a July 26-29 Zogby Poll that showed the Democrat opening up a small 48% to 43% lead.

The pressure is now on President Bush. His choice is to engage Kerry on the issues or focus his TV-driven campaign on attacking Kerry's character and values. Long and occasionally flat as it was, Kerry's star turn at the FleetCenter gave many Americans a different picture to ponder. Dunham is BusinessWeek's Washington Outlook editor

For more on the Democratic National Convention, see BusinessWeek Online's continuing coverage at www.businessweek.com/election2004.htm


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