America Needs an Antidote to the Election’s Partisan Venom


The 2004 presidential election is generating a level of intensity both inspiring and frightening.

Inspiring because it holds the promise of improving the anemic participation in elections. Almost all polls show that the share of voters closely following news about this campaign is up from 2000. Americans are sending the same message with their wallets: President Bush, Sen. John F. Kerry and Democratic interest groups all have raised unprecedented sums, much of it from small donors. All of which says millions of people care deeply about which man wins this election.

The frightening part is that many people care almost too much. In conversation, it’s striking how many voters see apocalyptic stakes in the choice. Many in red state America see Kerry as a duplicitous appeaser who will sell out U.S. security to curry favor with European countries where, they presume, he likes to shop. In blue state America, it’s common to hear fears that a reelected Bush will lead the nation toward a 1984-like state of repression at home justified by permanent war abroad.


Future historians will find no shortage of artifacts commemorating this feverish moment in American politics. One of the most prominent would be Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11.”

Moore’s film is powerful and moving when it focuses on the human cost of the war in Iraq. But the movie is loopy and crude in many of its political judgments, such as suggesting that the U.S. invaded Afghanistan to win approval for building a natural gas pipeline. Those without Moore’s keen insight for conspiracies might have wondered if the fact that Al Qaeda used Afghanistan as a base from which to plot an attack that killed thousands on Sept. 11, 2001, also contributed to Bush’s decision. Naifs.

In his venom, though, Moore has been trumped by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, a group of Vietnam veterans with strong Republican ties. Last week, the group aired an ad in three battleground states that was to traditional political discussion what a snuff film was to a conventional horror movie.

In the ad, several veterans, none of whom served with Kerry on the two Navy boats he commanded in Vietnam, accuse him of lying about his combat record. The ad is stunning less for its accusations -- it charges that Kerry lied to win his medals in Vietnam -- than for the venom with which Kerry’s accusers deliver their claims. It creates the unmistakable impression that if these men had the authority to order a firing squad for Kerry, they would.

Such ferocity is always dangerous in politics. It is especially threatening in the first election since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Americans are experiencing this campaign against a backdrop of fear unrivaled in recent election history. New barriers and checkpoints, like some especially noxious weed, seem to rise in the streets of Washington and New York every day. A sight that might have shocked Americans not long ago -- soldiers with automatic weapons patrolling the afternoon subway back to suburbia -- now merit merely a shrug.

Protesters at the Democratic National Convention were encased in a barbwire pen so forbidding that it appeared authorities had skipped the intermediate step and simply assembled them in a detention center.

At this level of anxiety, democracy itself is difficult. From the right, there’s a tendency to equate dissent with disloyalty. From the left, there’s an instinct to see Bush’s decisions as goose steps in a march toward authoritarianism.

In this supercharged environment, how people express themselves is almost as important as what they say. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is one of the few leaders in either party who has understood this.

McCain has embraced Bush more graciously than anyone in the White House expected after the two men’s bruising battle for the GOP nomination in 2000. But McCain also has refused to attack Kerry (who worked closely with him on normalizing relations with Vietnam). Last week, McCain condemned the vicious ad from the veterans group opposing Kerry.

On both sides, this campaign has no shortage of strong partisans. What it needs are more Americans, like McCain, willing to set boundaries on the partisan fervor.

If anyone can set the McCain standard for the entertainers, retired generals, business leaders and assorted other combatants rushing into the campaign trenches, it might be rock icon Bruce Springsteen. Last week, Springsteen took his first step into partisan politics by announcing he would join a loose coalition of stars in an early October concert blitz aimed at mobilizing opposition to Bush.

The concert tour will present a sterling collection of top-shelf acts, including Pearl Jam, the Dave Matthews Band and the Dixie Chicks. But Springsteen’s stature in his industry, the clarity and consistency of his artistic vision, the connection he’s cultivated with his fans over three decades, and his caution about associating with political causes all invest his words with more credibility than celebrities usually enjoy.

That means Springsteen, probably more than anyone else on the tour, has the capacity to help remind Americans on both sides that the differences between Bush and Kerry are policy disagreements, not moral failings.

In an interview, Springsteen said he wanted to show “respect for the office of the presidency,” even while making clear his disagreements over the nation’s direction. If he can hold to that standard, and encourage others toward it, Springsteen will perform an even greater service for the country than for Kerry.

America could use a deep breath. When this is over, someone will have to govern a closely divided country. Bush and Kerry are rivals. They are the champions of very different visions for how the U.S. should proceed at home and abroad. But they are not enemies. As the arrests last week in Pakistan and London show, the country has real enemies. America shouldn’t forget the difference.


Ronald Brownstein’s column appears every Monday. See current and past columns on The Times’ website at