Kerry's sales pitch to business

September 17, 2004|By Jules Witcover

DETROIT - Michigan's Democratic Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm spoke the language of her audience here the other day when she introduced Sen. John Kerry to the influential - and predominantly Republican - Detroit Economic Club.

She asked her listeners, in choosing the next president, to act as shareholders assessing the candidates, Mr. Kerry and President Bush, as if they were CEOs applying for the job of leading a huge corporation.

They should consider, she said, that this corporation had gone from a record surplus to record deficits, that its international reputation in the global economy had nose-dived, that its customers had lost income and lost their jobs "in record numbers," and that the corporation had accumulated the highest trade deficits in history.

From all this they might conclude, she said, "that it's time for a change at the top." As shareholders, she argued, they might feel they have a "fiduciary duty to change."

Picking up on the theme, Mr. Kerry began his pitch by addressing the politely attentive crowd as "my fellow shareholders of America." He loosened them up by saying that when he finished his speech, he hoped "Donald Trump walks in and says: `You're hired!'"

Mr. Kerry, calling himself "an entrepreneurial Democrat," argued that the record of the incumbent CEO of the American corporation "speaks for itself: 1.6 million jobs lost, the first president in 72 years to actually lose jobs on his watch; 8 million Americans are now looking for work; 45 million have no health insurance - 5 million more than the day he took office."

The Democratic nominee reminded his business-oriented audience that Mr. Bush, at his nominating convention in New York earlier this month, "talked about his ownership society. Well, Mr. President," he said, "when it comes to your record, we agree - you own it."

Mr. Kerry went on in that vein, uninterrupted by applause, saying Mr. Bush "has created more excuses than jobs," and calling his tenure "the excuse presidency: never wrong, never responsible, never to blame."

In this particular job interview, Mr. Kerry stuck to the economy, never segueing into the president's handling of the Iraq war, on which Mr. Kerry has more recently focused.

The "shareholders" didn't seem particularly moved, applauding for the first time well into the speech when Mr. Kerry promised he would "close the tax loopholes that reward companies for shipping jobs overseas" and "reward companies that create and keep good jobs here. ... We'll cut the corporate tax rates by 5 percent, giving 99 percent of businesses a tax break."

He drew more applause when he pledged to give small business owners "up to a 50 percent tax cut on your health care contributions when you cover your workers" - tailoring his expansive health care proposal to resonate with his hosts.

For the automaking executives present, Mr. Kerry offered "tax credits to buy and produce the fuel-efficient cars of the future."

The Democratic nominee spoke in what should be a receptive climate to his message because of weak auto sales over the summer in an industry generally struggling against foreign car manufacturers. But his speech to the Detroit Economic Club seemed more a case of Daniel going into the lion's den - and taking advantage of the heavy television coverage afforded by this traditional campaign stop.

A day earlier, Mr. Kerry encountered a much more demonstrative crowd in Toledo, Ohio, where he spoke to a heavily union audience and emphasized the aspects of his health care plan from the viewpoint of workers - a much easier sell.

"I'm focused like a laser beam, folks," Mr. Kerry told the Toledo audience of his concentration on health care. "I'm going to fight every single day to change the focus of this country."

In both Michigan and neighboring Ohio, Kerry phone banks indicate health care along with Social Security and Medicare remain foremost among the concerns of Democratic voters, on whose turnout his chances in November will largely ride.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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