Is Kerry more than just the anti-Bush?

At a dinner party last weekend, a friend of mine announced that he had an important question to ask our host. “George,” he said, munching on a shrimp cocktail, “You have eight months to answer this, but I need you to give me a reason to vote for Kerry. A good reason.”

While the rest of us meditated on an answer, our hostess couldn’t wait and started rattling off reasons not to vote for George W. Bush. She seemed aghast that any rational, humane person would vote for him after enduring four years of his administration.

The war in Iraq is just the beginning of an administration gone wrong. Bush has argued for more arsenic in our water, stripped funding for social programs, and put people like U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft in power. What other reasons would you need to vote for Kerry?

But that wasn’t good enough for Tom. “I’m not planning to vote for Bush,” explained my friend. “I’m asking why I should vote for Kerry instead of not voting at all. Why would he make a good president?”

Why, indeed. I had found plenty of reasons to vote for Howard Dean or John Edwards or even Dennis Kucinich or Al Sharpton in the Democratic primaries, but not Kerry.

Frankly, he bored me. At least the other candidates (outside of Clark) showed some passion, some fire and brimstone. Not Kerry. Like Al Gore, he is smart but robotic. His sentences are long, complex, and grammatically correct. But his reasons for running seem less about ousting an evil empire than taking the next step on his political ladder.

Unfortunately, Democrats decided to vote based on “electability” instead of issues. Democratic voters think Kerry is their best chance to beat Bush, and any Democrat would be better than Bush. There is some truth to that. Things might be different if a few of us who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 had voted for Gore. But we chose Nader because we didn’t like our options. We wanted a candidate we could defend, who reflected our values and had character. That candidate was not Al Gore.

Conservatives who voted for Bush at least got what they wanted. He has advanced the Far Right’s agenda, almost to his peril. I despise that agenda, but I think Bush is sincere, if totally off base. Bush also inspires loyalty. It’s a sort of “you scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours” philosophy. Bush’s friends are told, “Exchange the secret Patriot handshake, and if you say anything negative about me, you’re fired, and we’ll change your name to ‘Atta’ and throw you in jail without a trial.”

Which brings me back to Kerry. Not much has changed in 2004. I don’t want to vote based on “electability.” That’s an awfully strange way of voting. Instead of choosing the best person for the job, you vote for the candidate you think your Republican or Independent neighbor might vote for? No wonder our country is so politically homogenized. I sometimes wonder whether people would vote for Satan if he were on the ticket with a D beside his name and a good chance of being elected.

Unfortunately, Democrats didn’t learn from 2000. They’ve already picked their patrician knight, and I fear it may be an ill-fated strategy, considering what happened to Gore. Particularly because it’s hard for people to answer the “Why should I vote for Kerry” question without bringing up Bush. Kerry is simply seen as the anti-Bush, instead of himself.

My friends who plan to vote for Kerry assume he will be better than our current leader. They hope he will be everything Bush isn’t, but do the facts support that?

Our host seemed to think so. He told Tom that Kerry would protect the environment. Tom answered by quoting the president of the Teamsters Union, who is endorsing Kerry, but disagrees with his position on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The Teamsters president reconciled that by saying that Kerry promised to drill everywhere else besides the refuge. As Tom put it, “When push comes to shove, who is he going to be willing to displease?”

Political careers in Washington are made on compromises, and Tom’s point was well made. However, I’m more worried about Kerry being in touch with the “common man.” It seems the only real-world experience Kerry ever had was in Vietnam. Granted, he did that admirably, but the rest of his life has been filled with politics and wealth. He’s a trust-funder, and I can’t say I’ve met any trust-funders in touch with reality. Once again, when push comes to shove, will he fight for the rights of the working poor, and for universal health care, and tax reform?

The only answer I could come up with to the Kerry question was, “I heard several people say the Atlantic Monthly’s article about Kerry’s Vietnam years made them think differently about his candidacy.” This sounds lame even to my ears. If I couldn’t name one major policy difference between Bush and Kerry then maybe I shouldn’t vote for him.

Let’s hope I can come up with a good answer by November.

Janelle Holden, a former resident of Montezuma County, writes from Montana.

From April 2004, janelle holden.