Although the Democratic nomination process is not yet over, Sen. John F. Kerry has built a commanding lead.
“Now we carry this campaign and the cause of a stronger, fairer, more prosperous America to all parts of our country,” Sen. Kerry announced Tuesday evening, highlighting what will be his election themes at least for the next few weeks, and possibly for the rest of the campaign should he gain the nomination.
“We believe in a stronger America. George Bush, who speaks of strength, has made America weaker: weaker economically, weaker in education, weaker in health care.”
Sen. Kerry now will go for knockout blows in the remaining primary and caucus states.
But, as ex-Vermont Gov. Howard Dean has so recently demonstrated, “there’s always a chance for a front-runner to bungle the lead,” said Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College.
“Republicans and Democratic opposition researchers will be on stakeouts” around the Kerry camp and sifting through past Kerry statements and his Senate voting record.
One straw the critics might seize, Pitney said, is a Kerry statement from last April to the effect that Supreme Court justices never should overturn precedents. “That would mean Brown v. Board of Education was wrongly decided,” Pitney noted, referring to the landmark 1954 decision that ordered public schools nationwide to be desegregated.
There are plenty of potential pitfalls in the big themes of the Kerry campaign, too. Essentially, Sen. Kerry is conducting a campaign of envy, saying the rich are getting away with too much and need to take a bigger tax hit. His Web site is more explicit, griping that “George W. Bush has chosen tax cuts for the wealthy and special favors for the special interests over our economic future.”
Such appeals to class envy are timeworn and far from foolproof. Pitney noted the practice goes back at least to Roman times and has a long tradition in America. “Calls for tax increases always get applause in the Democratic primary and provide an opening to the Republican challenger. Nowadays, more than two-thirds of voters own stock. To a large extent, when you attack corporations, you’re attacking the electorate.”
Will Sen. Kerry’s class envy arguments resonate?
It’s hard to believe that middle-class workers who see their fortunes rise and fall with the stock market and who benefited from the Bush tax cuts will see the world as Kerry does: business is evil; wealth is concentrated and available to the few; opportunities are limited.
Besides, a message of tax cuts has actually helped Democrats win the presidency in the past.
In 1960, another Massachusetts Democrat, John F. Kennedy, promised a tax cut “to get America moving” — and delivered on that promise
And in 1992 candidate Bill Clinton’s promise of a “middle-class tax cut” helped get him elected. In office, he reneged on that promise and actually increased taxes, mostly on the wealthy.
But he returned to the tax-cut theme in his 1996 re-election campaign, calling for reducing the capital gains tax. This time, he made good on the promise and got the cut enacted, leaving tax levels overall roughly where they were when he came in office.
Despite his current momentum, it seems clear that Sen. Kerry will need to offer voters more than a “soak the rich” vision of leadership to unseat President Bush.