September 9, 2004
Kerry Needs Clarity
The "swift boat" attack on Sen. John Kerry, supporting the Republican effort to portray him as a weak liberal, has special resonance among those Jews who will base their vote on whether they think a candidate will be tough enough in standing up for Israel.
The Democratic presidential nominee's claim to toughness is his Vietnam biography. Dirtying up the biography has done him severe damage. But so did his delay in replying in a strong and clear manner.
The assault is designed to cast doubt on Kerry's record as a decorated combat officer in the Vietnam War. It makes no difference that those who served with Kerry on the dangerous patrol boat missions have refuted these phony allegations, and President Bush has praised the senator's combat record.
The anti-Kerry ads have been magnified by the mindless, and -- in the case of Fox -- partisan coverage of 24-hour cable news. Now the Republican version of the swift boat legend is firmly embedded in the campaign debate, poisoning the heroic and true story told by Kerry and other vets who were there.
Republican prime targets in the Jewish community are one-issue men and women who will base their vote on Israel, according to Journal Washington correspondent James D. Besser.
A National Jewish Democratic Council poll done by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, showed that 15 percent of the respondents mentioned Israel when asked what issues would be most important in voting for a presidential candidate.
While there are comparatively few of them, these are the voters that the Republicans hope will deliver the election to Bush. Besser was told by Republican sources they hope for a 5 percent increase in the Jewish vote for Bush, who received 19 percent in 2000. That kind of a boost, they said, might be enough to deliver the battlegrounds of Florida, Ohio and Michigan.
Overall, the National Jewish Democratic Council poll showed Kerry ahead of Bush among Jewish voters 75 percent to 22 percent.
But that figure doesn't tell the whole story. The votes of multiple-issue Jews may also be affected by the Middle East. The poll showed terrorism and national security are high in determining presidential votes, as is Iraq. Most voters like strength on these issues, which are all connected to the Middle East and to conflict in Israel.
Recently, I checked with Kerry volunteers in the San Fernando Valley to see how the campaign was holding up under the assault.
I didn't ask people if they were Jewish. I usually don't, figuring that any Democratic group in the Valley will include Jews. So I'm always certain of catching some Jews in my web when I interview people in the Valley and the Westside.
I was interested in whether enthusiasm has waned in the grassroots after what had been a bad week for Kerry. They were full of anti-Bush fire. Almost 100 men and women, ranging from younger to older, filled a meeting room in the State Building in Van Nuys, a good crowd for a sunny L.A. summer weekend day.
Before the meeting started, I talked to Randy Gold of Sherman Oaks, who is in charge of a big operation of placing volunteers at tables at key Valley locations, especially on weekends, to register voters and sign up supporters.
He said the 15-20 sites manned by volunteers continue to do well.
"I've been around for a while, and I didn't see this in 2,000," he said
I asked him about polls showing a slight Kerry decline after the swift boat campaign.
"I think the polls will bounce back," he said.
With the latest poll showing Kerry ahead of Bush 50 percent to 40 percent in California, the Valley for Kerry organization is sending busloads of volunteers on weekends to Arizona and Nevada. There, they walk door to door, working up support in two states where the results are in doubt.
Valley for Kerry is raising its own money for such efforts. The national campaign is sending its dollars to battleground states.
These volunteers are reflective of Democrats all over the country -- enthusiastic, desperately wanting to beat Bush, hoping to be led to victory by the gutsy swift boat vet.
The trouble is that, so far, Kerry has been a stiff on the campaign trail. Even a campaign veteran like me has trouble digging through what he has in mind on issues. I feel like I am reading a position paper written by a Senate aide or a veteran of the old Clinton health plan task force.
For example, I came across a piece by Kerry published in The Forward spelling out his plans for the Middle East. He makes good points, notably that "a nuclear armed Iraq is unacceptable" as is Saudi Arabia "financing and providing ideological backing for Islamic fundamental jihadists." Like Bush, he supports Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans for withdrawal from Gaza. He also said "the fence has proven its value as an anti-terror measure."
I think all that is great. But Kerry muddied it up. He will launch an aggressive public diplomacy campaign in Arab and Muslim countries to tackle head-on the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda" -- diplomacy against anti Semitism?
He said he will work with the Palestinians to empower new leadership "committed to a permanent end of terror and the promotion of democracy." What about new leadership not committed to the destruction of Israel?
These are just some of the softer questions Kerry is being asked by voters in this year's complex Jewish political landscape.
Single-issue voters love simplicity, whether it be on abortion or Israel. To them, nuance is ducking the question. But unless Kerry sharpens his statements, shows his toughness, Bush may well get his 5 percent.
Kerry may have the same problem with other voters, such as the Jews and non-Jews I have been following in the San Fernando Valley.
Maybe they don't demand the simplicity sought by single-issue voters, but they want strength -- and clarity.
Correction: In my last column, I incorrectly identified reader Gillee Sherman as a woman. That's the trouble with e-mail interviews. Gillee good naturedly pointed out to me that he's a man.
Bill Boyarsky's column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for three years. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.