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Kerry-Edwards Ticket Dusts Off Gore’s Class-Warfare Theme

When the “Sunshine Boys” did their first joint-television interview on “60 Minutes” two weeks ago, neither John Kerry nor John Edwards made the most telling statement of the night. That dubious honor went to Elizabeth Edwards. Arguing that in voting against the Bush tax cuts, the duo had unselfishly voted against their own self interest, she asked, “Isn’t that what we want? A leader who looks at the greater good instead of what simply benefits … the people in his own class.” What class would that be, I wonder? [IMGCAP(1)]

The “Which home address did you want?” class or the “What’s Wal-Mart?” class? Of course, whether your net worth is $500 million or just a paltry $60 million, I suspect scraping up enough money to pay Uncle Sam isn’t your biggest problem, anyway. But, according to Mrs. Edwards, we are to believe that the Kerry-Edwards team are a pair of wide-eyed populists who, to coin an old phrase, are for “the people not the powerful.” Could it be déjà vu all over again? Has the class warfare, which was roundly discredited in 2000 and blamed, in part, for Gore’s loss, reared its ugly head? You decide.

This election is about “whether forces standing in your way will keep you from living a better life.” I promise to “take on the powerful special interests that stand in your way.” “Working people have been shut out by this president because he values only one thing: wealth. He wants to make sure that those who have it — keep it. That they belong to an exclusive club — that the barriers are up, the doors closed and no one else ever gets in.”

The first statement was made by Al Gore in the heat of the 2000 campaign. The next by Kerry and then Edwards. Clearly, the difference between them is little more than a matter of style, although Gore seems almost reserved when compared to Edwards’ diatribe. With Edwards and his “two Americas theme” now driving the Democrat ticket, the Kerry folks trotted out a new “values” campaign last week that dominated the political coverage. While their words may be better packaged and delivered by a more attractive messenger, the substance and style we heard from both Kerry and Edwards was the same old class-warfare rhetoric that Gore bellowed coast to coast in 2000.

But Gore had a problem that may well afflict the Kerry-Edwards team. His populist credibility took a major hit when America discovered that he was not another Bill Clinton, not “just like us.” To the contrary, he was the scion of landed gentry raised in an exclusive Washington hotel. Kerry, whose upbringing is decidedly more Deauville than Dogpatch, may well meet the same reaction. Even Edwards’ working-class background is hard to swallow with a $60 million bank account.

Because Gore carried the popular vote, some have argued that his class warfare strategy actually worked. What they fail to understand is that Gore should have won by a wide margin and didn’t because, unlike Clinton, he reverted to old school, Democrat type — playing the class card. Clinton won because he offered hope and positive solutions.

There’s nothing wrong in using values to win a presidential campaign, and there are different ways to do it successfully. One is a “51/49 strategy” that entails using values that appeal to the base and tend to reinforce an existing belief. A second strategy relies on values to reach the important middle — swing voters who respond to a more optimistic approach that relies on solutions to problems. Bush and Kerry are trying a mix of both, but that’s where the two campaigns part company. Bush’s approach is fairly straightforward, pushing a series of social issues to keep the Republican base enthused while talking about the economy, education, prescription drugs and national security to appeal to the undecided middle. Contrasting his record with Kerry’s is also central to his strategy. Kerry’s approach has been stridently negative since last winter, and Edwards’ use of class warfare goes back to the primaries, but last week they reinvented the term for general election purposes, calling it a discussion of values. But as the old saying goes, “if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it’s a duck.”

Their criticism of Bush is now delivered cloaked in class-based appeals. Whether it’s health care, tax cuts, education or the war, Kerry’s arguments have become a harsh concoction of us-vs.-them language spiked with charges of graft, corruption, special interests and Halliburton.

Next week, the Democratic convention will spotlight a lineup of podium pounders and class-warfare proponents from Howard Dean to Al Gore to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) who will, no doubt, revel in a veritable celebration of class baiting. They will then cap off the week with the millionaire poster boy for class warfare, Edwards, and his even richer convert to the class-warfare cause, Kerry, telling us how they share America’s small-town values. That would be Georgetown, I presume.

David Winston is president of The Winston Group, a Republican polling firm.