Confessions of a liberal

I'm running out of excuses for why I can't go door-to-door to help elect John Kerry.

By Thomas Geoghegan
Published August 28, 2004 7:45PM (EDT)

Although I'd like to help Kerry, each week I have a new excuse. Right now? "I'm not a swift boat veteran." If I were, and had served with Kerry, I'd be suing. John O'Neill. Karl Rove. Maybe even the big guy, Dick Cheney. I'd find a friendly little state court in Texas and start taking depositions. I'd allege that they put me in a "false light," which is a tort, or personal injury. If I started the case now, then by October I'd have my lawyers deposing President Bush. But I'm no more a Vietnam veteran than Bush. So if I'm going to help defeat him -- and I'm starting to dream about the guy -- what am I going to do? I'm tired of hearing my own excuses and that of my friends. For example:

1. "Well, all you can really do is give money." So that's the end of that. At my age, a lot of people are tapped out. Kids in college. Parents in assisted living. But is it true that giving dough is the only thing we can do?

Come on! Maybe in 2000. But this time, there are buses waiting to take you to Ohio. Or there are at least for Kerry. Probably private planes if you want to work for Bush. In fact, on my side, there's a whole, new, second Democratic Party, by which I mean America Coming Together, and a whole network of "527" committees to send us door to door. My pal Ed, a lawyer, with a wife and two kids, is about to take a leave of absence, a month (a month!) to head out to Ohio. If you missed the buses to Mississippi in the 1960s (and basically we all did), they've got buses to Ohio. You can make up for it now.

I tell myself I can't go because last spring I broke my knee. I can't hobble door to door, can I? But at ACT, the young woman there told me I could write letters. "Write letters? Do I make them up?" "You can make them up," she said. "Or you can use form letters." It's like the Committees of Correspondence before the American Revolution: "Dear fellow colonist, I hope you vote for our candidate from Boston." So even if I'm lame, or have a bad back, I still have no excuse.

But what if I just give money? No. George Soros has already given plenty of money. So have other rich liberal types, like Sen. Jon Corzine and others. Bush gave them the money when he cut their taxes. Thanks to those tax cuts, we send the buses to Ohio. Of course, it's the little money that keeps Kerry in play. I admit that. And if your knee really hurts as bad as mine, maybe giving money is a fine thing to do.

But it's also good to hobble, block by block, house by house -- because, remember, the people most likely to vote in this election are even older and sicker than people like me. They don't want to see kids, so lithe, full of life, of promise, of hope; it makes them want to vote for Bush. They want to see older people, as bitter and as lame as they are.

But there's yet another excuse:

2. "I don't have to work for Kerry, since people are going to come out." There's going to be a huge turnout. That's my excuse for not doing anything for Kerry. People are polarized like never before. But is it true? I bet turnout in this election actually goes down. You say it's impossible? Aren't we that polarized? Aren't the kids on the streets? Isn't ACT et al. spending over $130 million just to turn us out?

I still think turnout will drop. The country is polarized, but the real polarization, which is growing, is between those of us who vote and the growing number who just don't. Our side, the side of the voters, we're losing, and we keep losing bigger each election. That's why the Republicans are in. And if turnout does drop in this election, that means that even if Kerry gets in, he won't be able to govern. That is, we may have the White House. For a while. But not Congress. And even if by some freak occurrence we get Congress, we won't have it long because, in the end, turnout will keep dropping, and the Democrats will die. But why am I so certain turnout's going down?

First, in 2004, there's no one "new" to turn out, except a few kids and people who didn't vote in '00, in '96, in '92, who've not voted in 16 years or more. It's too much to believe that people who have stayed out for so long are going to jump in now. "Oh, but they saw 'Fahrenheit 9/11'!" But how many nonvoters saw it? I bet they don't amount to a pimple on the pinhead of an electoral vote.

Second, the good voters are dead. Old ladies, in Miami, who may, alas, have cast their last vote for Pat Buchanan. Who is going to replace them? Even the next cohort of little old ladies, who are turning 80 now, is a bit less civic than the one that was at 80 just four years ago. And biologically, those who really replace the dead, who are at 18 to 2l now, will vote this year at a lower rate than people in their demographic bracket have ever voted before. Even at Yale itself, the voting rate will drop. Why? Ralph Nader is less of a factor. It was Nader who bumped up, artificially, the 2000 vote. Otherwise, it might have been lower than even that in '96. My guess is that Nader is down two points or so from where he was in late August four years ago.

Also, kids -- indeed, all of us, at all ages -- are slightly stupider than we were in 2000. That is, we now read fewer books. We now read fewer newspapers. Reading the paper is the single best determinant of who is going to vote, and since 2000, the reading of anything at all has dropped. At Yale, or Harvard, or the University of Chicago, how many undergrads read any paper at all?

Third, aside from being dead, at least some of the old 2000 voters have dropped into poverty. Our mass poverty, shocking even in a boom year like 2000, is even worse, so there is more disorder in our lives, more despair. We have more one-time voters who are too lost now to care who wins.

All these turnout-dropping things are bad for Kerry. But one thing is good. Dare I say it? OK. Republicans, or a few of them, are going to sit out the election. Still, people on the left say aloud or secretly believe that it's impossible for turnout to drop. For we all know that, in 2004, there's so much more at stake.

Is there more at stake this time? Oh, I know the case for it. But one could argue there was really more at stake in 2000, and Bush would be more neutered in a second term. Besides, I remember, personally, being more hysterical four years ago. Never, never before in my lifetime, did the GOP ever have it all: the White House, Congress, the Supreme Court. What would they do? Oh, no, a lot of my liberal friends say, we never expected Bush to be so bad. But though I hate to say this, this first Bush term hasn't been quite as bad as I expected. And yes, I know about Iraq, the tax cuts, the loss of civil liberties.

But look what we still have: We still have labor unions. Maybe they were too weak for the GOP to bother to kill off. We still have civil rights (except in Florida). Business is a bit better: Sarbanes-Oxley is partly, but not totally, a joke. And while you may not like the PATRIOT Act, it's not as bad as the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, which after 9/11 I would have expected Bush to reenact. Why didn't he? I suppose we have the gun lobby to thank for that. And the tax cut: It's awful, but is it really worse than you expected?

On the surprise side, there's foreign policy. That has been much worse than I thought. Four years ago I watched the Republican Convention on television, and I was amazed that one general after another got up to speak. General Y, General X. I laughed. "Don't they know we're at peace?" I said to my friends: "Boy are the Republicans clueless. There's no 'war.' Why are they giving all this airtime to the military?" You'd have thought, in fact, at that convention, that we were about to go to war! It was silly. In 2000, we weren't heading into any war. Were we?

But even if I was more upset about Bush getting in four years ago, I'm still upset plenty about him getting back in now. And that's why, being on the left, I have to go door to door. Even if I have a bad knee, and I can't run, and I'm afraid of dogs, especially the kind of dogs nonvoters have.

Maybe by an extraordinary effort -- if we write letters and get on buses, with hundreds of millions of dollars, from Soros and a hundred thousand small givers and even from boomers with kids in college -- we may get the same turnout we had in 2000. It would be amazing just to keep it from dropping even more.

But here's the third excuse to cop out of this election. I hear it all the time.

3. "Kerry just cares about the swing vote." Sure, Kerry is appealing to the swing vote. But paradoxically, if that's all he cares about, he can't really appeal to it. By that I mean, to get the swing vote, he has to have behind him everyone on the left. Swing voters love to tell us: "Oh, I'm independent; I'm not in any party." But in a way the independents believe in "party" more than you or I because independents like order and stability.

If Kerry doesn't have his party behind him -- and independents will sense it if he doesn't -- then they will shrink from Kerry, because he's incapable of governing. How does Kerry win the swing vote? By convincing people in the middle that you and I are committed to helping Kerry govern. That is, if he's elected, we won't walk away. That's why they have to see us, in the flesh, going door to door.

Of course, you might disagree. In which case, I have these two words of advice: Shut up! They, the swing voters, ask only one thing: Will we who are on the hyper-articulate left just shut up? If we can, then Kerry can win. It seems to me many on the left fail to understand that in any election, to get 51 percent, someone like Kerry really has to get 100 percent, that is, every vote he can.

It seems so obvious. At this point, he should not be trying to win over liberal types like me. It's as if we were up for grabs every single week! And if he wants to appear nonpartisan for a few weeks now, it's OK by me. Let him talk about America. Offer his person to the nation. He is trying, in a way, to march to Paris, like President de Gaulle. That's the way to do it. The worst way is to do it is as Al Gore did -- running as a centrist before the convention, then after it tacking sharply to the left. He had to because he didn't even have the Democrats. That's often the Democrats' model, at least when they lose: Start in the middle, then in a panic tack to the left. What I like about this election is that we tack to the middle. But this middle knows, and even expects, that once we're in power, we'll tack back to the left.

And then there's the final cop-out, which is embraced not just by middle-aged people on the left like me but people of all ages:

4. "What's the point of voting if you're not in a battleground state?" Recently, I met a Harvard kid who'd just graduated. Vote? He didn't vote last time. "I knew Gore was going to carry Massachusetts. Why should I vote? It's just the stupidity of having an Electoral College." He smiled, as in "Try to get around that."

But if he had voted, Gore would have run up an even bigger margin over Bush. So Bush, as president, would have been even more illegitimate. If all the smart-aleck Harvard kids had voted, we would have done that much more to discredit the Electoral College, too. By now, we might have started a movement to get rid of the damn thing. But no, he didn't think of that.

When I told this little story to my friend Kathleen, she was pretty annoyed with me. Didn't I get it, either? "Didn't it occur to you," she said, "there are other candidates on the ballot?" She was right! I was as stupid as that Harvard kid. For in every election there is someone who really does need a vote, even if it's just for the sanitary district commission. Perhaps this year on the ballot there's a future Joan of Arc to lift up from the sludge. And because of your vote, one day she might be a candidate for president. Or perhaps you could end somebody's career -- maybe on the ballot there's a future Evita Peron or Katherine Harris, and this is the last chance to drive a stake through her heart. Figuratively. In a nice way.

There are never any excuses. Every election is the last chance.

Thomas Geoghegan

Thomas Geoghegan, a Chicago lawyer, is the author of "In America's Court" and "Which Side Are You On?"

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2000 Elections 2004 Elections Democratic Party John F. Kerry