No retreat, no surrender

Shedding caution, John Kerry takes the fight to George W. Bush -- and gives the speech of his life.

Published July 30, 2004 7:00PM (EDT)

All week long, the Kerry-Edwards campaign has tried to keep a lid on the emotion -- anger about an election stolen, sadness about an America lost -- that is driving the Democrats' desire to oust George W. Bush. Thursday night in Boston, it finally became clear why: Kerry was trying to save it all for himself.

The Democratic presidential nominee stormed into the Fleet Center to Bruce Springsteen's "No Surrender," and he never did. Nearly an hour after saying, "I'm John Kerry and I'm reporting for duty," Kerry was still at his post, delivering a sustained attack on the Bush administration -- and a hopeful plea for the future -- that was as passionate, in Kerry's own way, as any speech Al Sharpton could ever hope to deliver.

"Now, I know there are those who criticize me for seeing complexities -- and I do -- because some issues just aren't all that simple," Kerry said. "Saying there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq doesn't make it so. Saying we can fight a war on the cheap doesn't make it so. And proclaiming 'mission accomplished' certainly doesn't make it so."

Going straight after the Republican defense of Bush's war on Iraq -- the president didn't lie, he was misled -- Kerry said he will "ask hard questions and demand hard evidence. I will immediately reform the intelligence system -- so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics. And as president, I will bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: the United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we will only go to war because we have to."

Kerry, who had been criticized by some Democrats for what they thought was excessive caution in attacking Bush and his policies, started out slowly but electrified the crowd when he took the gloves off. "I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war," he said. "I will have a vice president who will not conduct secret meetings with polluters to rewrite our environmental laws. I will have a secretary of defense who will listen to the best advice of our military leaders. And I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States."

Kerry's speech brought to a close a Democratic Convention unlike any other in recent history. While all of the usual fighting factions were present in Boston, they managed to put on a united front for Kerry. "President Bush once said he wanted to be a uniter, not a divider," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., told the convention earlier Thursday. "Well, congratulations, Mr. President. You have united the Democratic Party in a way that we have not seen in a generation."

Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe took it a step further. "This is the best convention we've ever had," he said in a Fleet Center hallway on Thursday afternoon. "We're more unified and energized than we've ever been. It's going great. Bush is in trouble. Bush is gone."

Karl Rove, events at home and abroad, and voters across America will all eventually have something to say about that, but here's where things stand now. On the national level, pre-convention polls show that the race is essentially tied. Kerry is up by a couple of points in polls from Time, Fox and CNN; Bush is up by a couple in polls from ABC and NBC. In each case, the lead -- be it Bush's or Kerry's -- is within the margin of error.

Ultimately, of course, the national numbers are irrelevant -- just ask Al Gore, who won the national vote and then went home. The Electoral College is what matters, and with most states locked already into one column or the other -- there's no way California or New York will go for Bush, no way Kerry will carry Texas or Wyoming -- the campaigns will spend the next three months focused on a handful of swing states.

According to a pre-convention Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll, Bush has slim leads in Arkansas and West Virginia, Kerry is up in Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington, and the candidates are neck-and-neck in Iowa, Missouri, Ohio and Florida.

The Journal's analysis: If the Zogby results today are an accurate prediction of the vote counts in November, Kerry will be elected president. Events in Iraq or at home could change the political landscape in an instant, but Democrats are clearly feeling optimistic about their chances.

While it's too early to start choosing Cabinet positions, Democratic strategists say the "fundamentals" of the race favor Kerry. In a pre-convention memo to Democrats, pollster Stan Greenberg and strategist James Carville said that a desire to "change the dynamics surrounding the economy and Iraq" will "likely leave Bush at grave risk of defeat."

It's not clear whether this week's convention -- or next month's Republican Convention in New York -- will have much effect on what Greenberg and Carville call the "stable" nature of this presidential race. Instant polls will be out in the next few days, and the press will focus on whether Kerry's convention "bounce" was big enough. For weeks, the rival campaigns have been playing the expectations game: Bush-Cheney predicts a huge bounce, setting the Democrats up for the appearance of failure; Kerry-Edwards predicts a tiny bounce, setting themselves up to declare that even a minor bump in the polls shows that Americans are finally getting comfortable with John Kerry.

Even before the convention began, the media decided that nothing of interest could happen in Boston. They weren't entirely wrong. By and large, Democrats have remained safely "on message" -- talking up Kerry's "stronger at home, respected in the world" theme and criticizing the Bush record more often with humor than rancor. This was not the Democrats' version of the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston, when Pat Buchanan declared a "culture war" from the podium. There were flashes of appropriate anger in Boston, but nothing that begs to be cut and pasted into a Republican campaign ad about how Democrats are out of touch with the mainstream. Al Gore didn't roar, and Howard Dean didn't scream; he read the climax of his speech "you have the power, you have the power, you have the power" -- like he was reading a grocery list.

With no easy targets for right-wing outrage, Republicans and their talking-head friends zeroed in on a couple of "controversial" moments -- Teresa Heinz Kerry's "shove it" comment, Al Sharpton's anti-Bush rave-up Wednesday night -- and a silly photograph of John Kerry in something that looked like a bunny suit.

Thursday afternoon on the Fleet Center's "Radio Row," DNC chair Terry McAuliffe talked with reporters after taping a segment for Sean Hannity's show. McAuliffe could barely speak, his voice hoarse after a week of schmoozing donors and spinning reporters, so his aides didn't want him to talk. But a reporter got in a single question -- not about the Democrats' chances in November, not about the speech Kerry was about to give, not about the suspiciously timed announcement of the arrest of an al-Qaida suspect in Pakistan. "Yesterday at the Schubert Theater," the reporter shouted, "Alec Baldwin said the Republican Party was 'hijacked by fundamentalist wackos.' ... How do you react to him using that kind of speech at a DNC-sponsored event?"

With boom mics hanging overhead and reporters dutifully taking down every word, McAuliffe said that Alec Baldwin could speak for himself. "You know what? Dick Cheney went on the floor of the U.S. Senate and told a senator to go 'blank' himself, so you know, I'm sorry, I'm not going to get too outraged about Alec Baldwin when the incumbent vice president of the United States of America uses language I can't use in front of my five children."

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said the focus on trivia reflects the desperation the Republicans are feeling in the wake of a successful Democratic Convention. "You know that the Republicans are nervous when they go after Teresa Heinz for saying 'shove it' to somebody or John Kerry for appearing in an outfit. They are trying desperately to change the subject away from what's on Americans' minds."

And anyway, Reich said, it wouldn't be a Democratic Convention if people didn't speak their minds, at least sometimes. "With the Republican Party, everybody marches in lockstep. Well, we never do. We are not authoritarian by nature. We are not that disciplined."

That might be true of the Democrats generally, but it's not the case with the Kerry campaign. The campaign vetted the speech of every convention speaker, removing words and phrases that didn't align with the official message. One example: Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell told Salon on Thursday the Kerry campaign deleted from his speech a line where he would have said the Bush administration's energy policy was written "by big oil and for big oil." "I didn't think that was so harsh," Rendell said, and in fact Kerry said things much harsher. In a line that would have made Michael Moore proud, Kerry said that he wants "an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation" and not on "the Saudi royal family." But no matter, Rendell's line was deleted.

The speech the Kerry campaign loaded into the teleprompter for Sharpton was short and passion-free; the printout of the Charlie Rangel speech the campaign distributed to reporters didn't include his riff about being "mad as hell." Sharpton and Rangel were freelancing; virtually everyone else toed the Kerry line, on stage and off.

The campaign wanted to get a message across, and it did: George W. Bush hasn't made us safer, and Democrats can do better. "This soldier has news for you," retired Gen. Wesley Clark told the convention crowd Thursday night. "Anyone who tells you that one political party has a monopoly on the best defense of our nation is committing a fraud on the American people."

It's a critical point to make, Reich said. Americans already trust Democrats on the economy and other social issues, he said, but "a lot of Americans don't know enough to trust the Democrats on national security."

The Democrats spent the week building that case -- with veterans events, with endorsements from retired military officers, with story after story of Kerry's life-saving exploits in Vietnam -- and Kerry made the case himself Thursday night.

"As president," he said, "I will fight a smarter, more effective war on terror. We will deploy every tool in our arsenal: our economic as well as our military might; our principles as well as our firepower."

Kerry said there is a "right way and a wrong way to be strong." "Strength is more than tough words," he said. "After decades of experience in national security, I know the reach of our power and I know the power of our ideals. We need to make America once again a beacon in the world. We need to be looked up to and not just feared."

On Iraq, Kerry said: "I know what we have to do." He said America needs a new president, one who has "the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers. That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home."

While the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism made up the core of Kerry's speech, it wasn't his only focus. He talked of lowering the cost of prescription drugs; he vowed never to privatize Social Security. And on a day when a Bush-Cheney campaign aide was heard suggesting that American workers unhappy with low-paying jobs should try Prozac Kerry tried to show that he and John Edwards are closer to the concerns of average Americans.

"We value jobs that pay you more than the job you lost," Kerry said. "We value jobs where, when you put in a week's work, you can actually pay your bills, provide for your children and lift up the quality of your life. We value an America where the middle class is not being squeezed, but doing better."

Kerry also threw down the gantlet to Bush on religion and faith. "And let me say it plainly . . . in this campaign, we welcome people of faith," he said. "America is not us and them. I think of what Ron Reagan said of his father a few weeks ago, and I want to say this to you tonight: I don't wear my own faith on my sleeve. But faith has given me values and hope to live by, from Vietnam to this day, from Sunday to Sunday. I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side."

With the convention behind them, Kerry and Edwards will set out Friday on what the campaign calls "a continuous cross-country trip ... highlighting the optimistic American spirit that is at the heart of the Kerry-Edwards plan to build a stronger America." That's another way of saying that they'll be campaigning in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Michigan.

They'll be joined in Pennsylvania by Gov. Rendell and the suddenly ubiquitous Ben Affleck. Rendell, the former chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said Thursday that Kerry should focus now on undecided voters and those who might be thinking about Ralph Nader. "That's the package," Rendell said. "Say Nader's got 4 percent, and there are six or seven percent undecided. That 11 percent might decide the election." Rendell said that Kerry and Edwards can sway undecided voters by showing them that they're "serious, intelligent adults" with a good plan for the economy. For potential Nader voters, the campaign will stress -- as Rep. Barney Frank did in a speech Thursday night -- that there are huge differences between the major parties, and that a vote for Nader is a vote that helps Bush stay in the White House.

While Rendell said that the Democratic base needs no further motivation, get-out-the-vote efforts will be important, particularly among minority communities. "We've got to vote like we've never before," said Georgia Rep. John Lewis. In African-American communities, Lewis said the Kerry campaign will be aided by "validators" -- African-Americans like Barack Obama and Kerry's swift boat gunner, the Rev. David Alston -- who can vouch for the candidate in the same way that he did for Bill Clinton in 1992. "John Kerry is going to have powerful validators, people saying, 'We know this man. We've worked with this man.'"

Thursday night in Boston, John Kerry vouched for himself. Along the way, he made it clear that Republicans don't have a monopoly on faith, on values or on patriotism. Earlier this week in Boston, former Sen. Bob Kerrey recalled the days after Sept. 11 as "the first time in my life when I felt genuine and not embarrassing patriotism." It was a time, the 9/11 commissioner said, when he felt "united with the rest of the country."

Again and again this week, Democrats have invoked the memories of those moments -- those days when the flag belonged to all Americans, when the world was by our side. "It was the worst day we have ever seen, but it brought out the best in all of us," Kerry said Thursday night. "There were no Democrats. There were no Republicans. There were only Americans. How we wish it had stayed that way."

Kerry called on Bush to help him bring Americans back together, even as he accused the president and his party of dividing the country in two.

Speaking directly to Bush, Kerry said, "In the weeks ahead, let's be optimists, not just opponents. Let's build unity in the American family, not angry division. Let's honor this nation's diversity; let's respect one another; and let's never misuse for political purposes the most precious document in American history, the Constitution of the United States."

"Tonight," Kerry said, "we have an important message for those who question the patriotism of Americans who offer a better direction for our country. Before wrapping themselves in the flag and shutting their eyes and ears to the truth, they should remember what America is really all about. They should remember the great idea of freedom for which so many have given their lives. Our purpose now is to reclaim democracy itself."

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

MORE FROM Tim Grieve

By Geraldine Sealey

Geraldine Sealey is senior news editor at

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George W. Bush Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass.