Democrat primary voters are going to the polls again today in seven states to perhaps all but end the presidential hopes of most of the remaining candidates. Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) is leading in most polls and has all the earmarks of being his party’s eventual nominee. [IMGCAP(1)]
So what are we to make of the Democrats’ move toward Kerry? In the end, despite all the talk about bringing new people into the party and all the hype about going in new directions, Democratic voters seem to be returning to their roots — heading north, actually far left, in embracing Kerry, an old-school candidate and creature of his party’s traditional anti-war liberal wing.
This, after all, is a guy who supported the nuclear freeze in the ’80s and whose voting record and beliefs, under normal circumstances, would have made him seem too extreme for today’s electorate. But these aren’t normal circumstances. This is the Democratic Party’s nominating process, and when compared to the ravings of Howard Dean, Kerry seemed almost moderate — almost. That is until you take a closer look.
An opponent of the first Persian Gulf War and now, in a reversal, against the current Iraq war, Kerry’s advisers have already begun bragging that they intend to use his war record to camouflage his left-leaning social agenda and, I suspect, his 20-year record as one of the most liberal Members of the Senate.
When asked on Fox News Sunday about anticipated GOP attacks on his liberal record, Kerry, smiled, “As they say in the South, [a region, by the way, he says he does not need to win] that dog won’t hunt.” Maybe. Maybe not.
Kerry’s “activist, progressive” agenda and voting record certainly do play well with Democratic primary voters. That’s hardly surprising as they think just like him. But what about the rest of America?
In the 2002 Congressional elections, Voter News Service found in its exit polling that two years after the controversial 2000 election, the country had moved to the right. VNS polls showed that only 17 percent of voters identified themselves as liberal, while 34 percent said they were conservative and 49 percent identified themselves as moderates.
This is bad news for Kerry, whose lifetime Americans for Democratic Action rating — 93 points — is five points higher than Sen. Edward Kennedy’s (Mass.), the blustery poster child for the angry left. According to the ADA, one of the most liberal activist groups in the country, a 100 score is “a perfect liberal quotient.”
If he wins the nomination, Kerry will inevitably kick off his general election campaign far outside the self-identified mainstream. But what about specific issues? Kerry and his media advisers are involved in a full-scale effort to recast this multimillionaire Boston Brahmin as a man-of-the-people populist. We haven’t seen this kind of repackaging effort since “New Coke” — and, likely, it will have the same lack of success.
A quick review of several key issues in the upcoming general election campaign shows that Kerry may well need more than military credentials to bridge the issue gap between him and the majority of voters. In a series of recent polls, President Bush’s positions were consistently more in tune with most voters than Kerry’s.
For example, voters in two recent surveys strongly favored the president’s Medicare reform legislation. In a Dec. 15-17 Pew Poll, 55 percent approved, while only 27 percent disapproved. A Dec. 5-7 CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll found 52 percent favored; 30 percent were opposed.
By a margin of 65 percent to 30 percent, voters told another Pew survey Jan. 6-11 that they supported Bush’s decision to use military force in Iraq; likewise in an ABC News/Washington Post poll Jan. 15-18 voters — by a 59 percent to 38 percent margin — said that the Iraq war had contributed to the long-term security of the United States.
On economic policy, voters told a CBS News poll Jan. 20 that they favored making the president’s tax cuts permanent, 50 percent to 41 percent, a smaller but still significant margin. In a poll I did last month for Americans for Better Education, we found people had a 54 percent to 23 percent favorable impression of the No Child Left Behind Act while parents with children in public schools were even more enthusiastic, 61 percent to 22 percent.
When it comes to Social Security, always an attack staple for Democrats, the numbers should be a real eye-opener for Kerry. People supported allowing workers to invest a portion of their Social Security contributions by a large margin at 67 percent to 24 percent, according to a Fox News/Opinion Dynamics Poll taken Jan. 21-22. In an Oct. 24-26 survey, CNN/USA Today/Gallup got a similar response: 62 percent to 34 percent.
A quick look at some of the more controversial social issues reveals a similar divide between Kerry and mainstream America. Kerry claims to be opposed to gay marriage but voted against the Defense of Marriage Act signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.
Voters side with Bush in opposing gay marriage by a margin of 59 percent to 32 percent (Pew Poll, Oct. 15-19). Similarly, Kerry voted against efforts to ban so-called partial-birth abortions, while people support the ban 68 percent to 25 percent (CNN/USA Today/Gallup, Oct. 24-26).
John Kerry served his country proudly and deserves credit for doing so, but that service doesn’t erase his record of 20 years of liberal activism in the Senate nor his views today, which put him solidly outside the mainstream.
Kerry likes to pep up his speeches these days daring Bush and the Republicans to “bring it on.” With a voting record like his, he might be wise to remember the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for.”
David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.