Kerry needs a vision

April 15, 2004|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - When presidential hopeful John Kerry's staff invited me and four other black columnists to a "get-acquainted" meeting, I bristled at the possibility of a pander-fest. Fortunately, it never got worse than pander-lite.

Pandering in politics can be like water to fish. On the same day that Mr. Kerry met with us, a friend called my attention to the "Compassion" page on the Web site for President Bush's re-election campaign. Almost all of the pictures on the Compassion page's "photo album" showed Mr. Bush having a happy time with African-Americans. "Compassion" appears to be a code word for "black people" in Bush-Cheney land.

By contrast, Mr. Kerry's outreach to blacks calls itself precisely that. On the same day that he delivered a major address on jobs and the economy at Georgetown University, Mr. Kerry's staff organized the "getting to know you" meeting with five black columnists: Gregory Kane of The Sun, George E. Curry of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service, Deborah Mathis with Tribune Media Services, Richard Prince of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and me.

"You are the agenda-setters; I'm the piM-qata," Mr. Kerry said.

We cared less about beating him up than pinning him down, particularly on issues of concern to blacks. It turned out, I am happy to report, that he did not see such issues as much different from the issues of concern to all Americans.

Mr. Kerry has been to dozens of black churches and black-oriented events on the campaign trail and it showed, particularly on what I call the obligatory litmus-test bromides of black Democrats. He unequivocally supported the "mend it, don't end it" approach to affirmative action that was advocated by President Bill Clinton. He criticized President Bush's judicial appointments. He noted that his own staff has had the largest percentage of blacks, 17 percent, of any presidential campaign this year except for maybe the Rev. Al Sharpton's staff.

From memory, he cited "health and job disparities in our communities of color ... African-Americans have 2 1/2 times greater mortality rate ... twice as likely to have diabetes ... nine times more likely to have HIV/AIDS ... Go to New York, 50 percent of African-American males are unemployed there. What's George Bush doing about it?"

But Mr. Kerry mostly practiced the politics of addition. Like a good Clinton-era centrist, he saved most of his passion for issues that the broadest number of Americans would care about, regardless of race or ethnicity. He promised to "create 10 million new jobs," "restore fiscal responsibility to our budgeting process," "put health care No. 1 on our agenda" and "attack this separate and unequal school system we have" by fully funding the Bush administration's controversial No Child Left Behind school reform program.

Critics, particularly in the Bush camp, have attacked Mr. Kerry's proposals as "class warfare" and the like. Frankly, I don't think Mr. Kerry's ideas sound any less plausible than President Bush's campaign promise to create jobs by putting more money in people's pockets. Paul Glastris, editor in chief of The Washington Monthly, writes in its April issue, "When you're running for office, even a dumb theory is better than no theory at all."

Mr. Glastris' piece focuses on how Mr. Kerry can create jobs. The Massachusetts senator needs big themes such as jobs to present to voters, much in the way that Mr. Clinton in 1992 used big themes that voters easily understood.

Conservatives like to say that government really doesn't have much of an impact on jobs, but history shows otherwise. As far back as Thomas Jefferson's Louisiana Purchase, government has used its budget power to create new jobs and spur productivity. Abraham Lincoln's land-grant college system, the interstate highway program and federally insured home loans are other examples.

Mr. Kerry can connect with voters with rhetoric and passion, but he also needs to give them some ideas to take home with them as an alternative to the Bush vision, such as it is. Anger among Democrats against Mr. Bush helped bring Mr. Kerry his party's nomination, but he also needs to offer a sense of hope for a better future. Mr. Clinton, like President Ronald Reagan, understood the power of an optimistic vision. It crosses all lines of class and color.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun.

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