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Future Imperfect

Flogging Vietnam has its value, but with the primaries behind him, Kerry needs a forward-looking message.

By Peter P.M. Buttigieg

I doubt the Bush campaign asked for permission from the family of the 9-11 victim whose flag-draped body appears in the latest Bush-Cheney commercial, and I’m glad it backfired. But the less-controversial elements of the new, expensive TV spots represent something Democrats should study and even imitate.

Regardless of the brief moment of poor taste concerning 9/11, the ads are extremely well done. Bush strides along the White House colonnade with a West Wing gait, and footage of him talking is interspersed with images of Americans living their lives in an uncertain world. In one of the spots, Bush says with conviction, “I know exactly where I want to lead this country.” I believe him. The commercials are composed of half memory, half hope—they strike a perfect balance between awareness of recent history and attention to the nation’s future.

Now it is up to John Kerry, still a blank slate to most Americans, to persuade the country that he has as much boldness in his future as he had in his past. Most attentive voters know a lot about Kerry’s role in history—Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam—but how many know what exactly he intends to do with health care, energy policy and war?

As the primary season gives way to the general election, Kerry has two related challenges if he is to define himself before Bush does: to make sure his vision is getting through, and to speak as much about himself as he does about Bush. Traditionally, this is viewed as striking a balance between positive and negative campaigning, but Kerry might do well to look at the balance between past and future in his approach.

History has its place, but a lack of balance in the campaign—evidenced by the fact that people know more about his Vietnam service than his politics—can only play into Bush’s hands by taking focus away from the future, which is where his true advantage lies. Comfortable with the tactic of personal politics, operatives may prefer to work in terms of personal history rather than ideological vision, but until they can convey their plans for the future, Democrats have a complaint, not an argument.

Using history as an argument makes some sense, especially for the Left. On the large scale, history as we learn it is mainly an ongoing tale of issues on which conservatives were dead wrong: wrong about the Revolution, prohibition, slavery, the New Deal, civil rights, Vietnam, and most painfully, wrong about it being a good idea to support dictators and terrorists in the Muslim world as part of the Cold War. Turning to more recent history, I want to know what Bush was doing when he was supposed to be drilling for the National Guard, and how he got discharged so easily. We need to know how much he knew about terror warnings in August, 2001, and what he did on his unusually long August vacation when some in the CIA were panicking about new threats. I’d like to know what will come of the grand jury on the CIA leak probe, which issued several subpoenas to the White House Friday. We need to understand that history to spare our nation the danger of repeating it.

But attention to history is only half the picture, and relying on the past to explain one’s candidacy is the equivalent of waiting for Bush to politically implode on his own. It could work, but it’s not a very inspiring or promising tactic.

Frustratingly, Kerry continues to play the history game, even as it becomes increasingly clear that the most urgent reasons to elect him have to do with the future. All but one of the last few press releases from his campaign mention Bush more than Kerry, leaving precious little space for a positive plan for the future. Worse, when he does lay out innovative policies, there is little sign of them in the press. When Vanessa Kerry, his daughter, spoke to students at Harvard last week, she offered the most compelling case for a Kerry presidency I have yet heard, and—this is novel—she did it entirely in terms of policy, with far more mentions of her father than of Bush. Kerry needs to stress this part of the picture until the press is compelled to show it.

Spending more energy on the future is a critical task for Kerry and his party, because the future offers the most powerful positive and negative arguments for a Democratic administration.

On the negative side, the future is when we will see the government crippled by the massive Bush tax cuts, while the economy tries to survive the impact of enormous deficits on interest rates and American credit. The future is when we face the consequences of living in an international community where pre-emptive war is a familiar doctrine of international relations, with America notorious for crying wolf. And the consensus of the scientific community is that the future is endangered by today’s fuel emissions. Just to be clear, I don’t mean the flying-cars, food-in-a-pill future; on average, most of these looming disasters will land on us right about the time that our kids are heading for college.

On the positive side, the future is when we could find out what it is like to live without dependence on foreign oil, or any oil. We would get to live in a nation where youth are bound together by a national service program which does needed work, instills values, and makes college more affordable at the same time. We could finally see a single-payer health care system that closes the gap between the U.S. and other nations when it comes to medical treatment. And we could travel abroad in a world that views America as a leader, not a danger. These are all promises from Kerry that have yet to break into the public conversation.

None of this will get across if Democrats give into the temptation to leap for the past. History is half of the picture, but it is only useful because it justifies alternative hopes for the future, which ought to be the real purpose of any campaign. It is up to Kerry to get these hopes across in the coming months, and to get the media to pay as much attention to his proposals as to his hair.

Peter P.M. Buttigieg ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Leverett House. His column appears on alernate Mondays

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