The moment he came out swinging into the Hollywood set of Fleet Center in Boston on Monday, to the trademark sound of Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop”, self-described “foot soldier” Bill Clinton was on a roll. As superstar entrances go, this would defy anything pulled off by Mick Jagger or David Bowie. And then, in a little over 20 minutes, he clinched the deal: he managed to sell John Kerry as a once-in-a-lifetime strong leader. Had every one of the 293 million Americans been in the Fleet Center – or watching on TV – when Clinton, aka The Big Dog to his ardent supporters, delivered the keynote speech in the first day of the Democratic Party Convention, the November presidential election might as well be over.
The current deluge of polls won’t specifically measure the Kerry bounce due to Clinton’s speech. That’s a pity. Clinton made superb use of two facts. He knew every Democratic delegate, not to mention most of the country, was more than aware of the political and economic Desolation Row carved by the administration of the current president, Republican George W Bush, so he cut to the chase. He also knew that in a society with the most voracious appetite for entertainment in the world, the only way to convey a complex political message is to put on a good show.
On Tuesday, Barack Obama, candidate to the Senate for Illinois and an instant superstar, was no less than electrifying (“There’s not a liberal America and a conservative America – there’s the United States of America”). But it was Clinton on Monday who set the tone. Subtle, sophisticated, passionate, bathing in irony, witticisms and allusions with a sprinkle of self-deprecation, never resorting to an explicit criticism, Clinton methodically slashed the Bush administration to pieces with a barrage of oratorical weapons of mass destruction, supported by undisputable numbers, while coining a few memorable refrains on the way, from “strength and wisdom are not opposing values” to “they need a divided America, but we don’t”. An informal Asia Times Online inquiry revealed that the speech played well all over the world, from Latin America to East Asia, from Western Europe to the Middle East. But the question is: will it play in suburban Ohio and the backwoods of northern Florida?
The Big Dog may have laid out the full roadmap – content, context, intonation, stress – for Kerry to capture the elusive undecided vote in key swing states. In an ideal campaign, Kerry’s team would just need to follow the Clinton prescription, carefully detailing the social cost of the Bush administration’s policies while contrasting their legacy with the US the world cherishes. There’s a slight problem, of course: Clinton can’t freelance as Kerry’s speechwriter and much less teach the stiff Massachusetts senator how to come out swinging.
It may have been as easy for Clinton to make the case for Kerry as it was to write his 1996 Democratic convention acceptance speech. On page 723 of the monumental My Life, Bill Clinton writes: “My acceptance speech was easy to give because of the record: the lowest combined rate of unemployment and inflation in 28 years; 10 million new jobs; 10 million people getting the minimum wage increase … 15 million working Americans with a tax cut; 12 million taking advantage of the family leave law; 10 million students saving money through the Direct Student Loan Program; 40 million workers with more pension security.” If only Bush could hold a record 10% this good. This is the speech in which Clinton coined the “bridge to the 21st century” theme of the campaign and of his next four years in the White House. Now Clinton has laid out the terms for Kerry to build his own, all-inclusive, tolerant, multilateral bridge to the future.
What the deluge of polls is now consistently saying is that Kerry has been slightly ahead for some time, with 46-48%, while Bush gets 44-46%. Kerry is leading in every state that Democratic candidate Al Gore won in 2000, but crucially is also leading in every swing state won by Bush in 2000. Contextualization is key. Already 54% of Americans, according to the latest Los Angeles Times poll, believe the country is going in the wrong direction. Now Clinton has given Kerry an extra boost – the roadmap to capture most of the 8-10% undecided vote.
Most Americans, with varying degrees of naivete, believe they live in a classless society. Class is a taboo theme in the US; that’s why Republicans talk about “values”: God, guns and gays are an essential part of the package. But once again class will be key in deciding this election. The Republicans’ relentless cultural populism has been extremely effective: their own hard sell as the party that best represents “American values” has captivated a vast, lower-middle-class, not very educated, socially conservative base. Kerry may have no way of seducing this base in the vast spaces of Red (Republican) states, but he definitely has a shot with male, conservative, angry, lower-middle-class voters in swing states such as Ohio and Florida. Once again Clinton showed he knows how to connect to this part of Middle America: Kerry just has to learn how to swing accordingly, proving again and again to these voters how cultural populism is a myth and how the Bush administration promotes corporate interests, not their own.
The polls are saying that if Kerry goes over 50% in the next few days, he has every chance of holding and even increasing the lead until November. The Bushites will panic. Since this is a “war presidency”, Democrats fear there would be three options left.
1) An Osama bin Laden October surprise (arrested, not “smoked out”, with the help of Pakistani ally President General Pervez Musharraf).
2) The election is again stolen, this time in California, with the help of Gubernator Arnold Schwarzenegger and Republican-made electronic ballot boxes in a few states.
3) An al-Qaeda attack (Osama, lest we forget, votes Bush) leads to a de facto coup d’etat, with the “Bush-Cheney junta” (Gore Vidal) postponing the elections indefinitely.
Conspicuously absent from Clinton’s roadmap for Kerry was the Iraq question. For a simple reason: neither the Democratic Party, nor Kerry, nor Bush for that matter, knows what to say and do about Iraq. Stephen Soldz, founder of Psychoanalysts for Peace and Justice in Boston, frames the problem to perfection:
“Imagine yourself an Iraqi. You’ve suffered terribly under a ruthless dictator. The Americans invade your country under false pretenses. They promise democracy but don’t organize elections. They appoint exiles to rule you, exiles who spend most of their time out of the country and the rest in a few highly protected areas. The occupiers break into your homes in the middle of the night and arrest your men, who then disappear, with no accountability. They shoot Iraqis at roadblocks and from convoys. They declare war on the second-most-popular man in the country, announcing his death in advance. They open the economy to US corporations and give them sweetheart contracts, ignoring local business. Then they write hundreds of laws and establish commissions limiting any future government. They build permanent military bases on your soil. Then they turn your country over to a former associate of Saddam Hussein, also a former CIA [Central Intelligence Agency] agent, known for his ruthless brutality. Imagine that was your country. What would you do?”
The Iraqi resistance knows what to do. The Democrats and Kerry still don’t. In the next few days the Big Dog might well figure it out – as well as the right way to deliver the news to the US electorate. When that happens, as far as November is concerned, it’s game over.