In 1960, the bosses who delivered the election to John F. Kennedy were Richard Daley of Chicago, John Bailey of Connecticut, and courthouse rings throughout the South. In 2004, the boss who may deliver the election to John F. Kerry is The Boss, Bruce Springsteen.
As far as I know, Springsteen has never delivered even his New Jersey precinct on Election Day. But if you catch him on the Vote for Change tour (as I did in Philadelphia this past Friday), you'll see that Springsteen understands this election, especially his swing-voter fan base and what message moves them. At the Democratic convention in Boston this summer, Kerry entered the hall to Springsteen's “No Surrender;” if he follows the Boss's lead this fall, he'll be entering rooms for the next four years to “Hail to the Chief.”
Full disclosure: I was raised in New Jersey, schooled in Philly, and believe that the E Street Band is the best rock-and-roll band in the world today. But I am neither a Springsteen groupie nor the type of fan who believes that Springsteen is infallible. (I've listened to “Human Touch;” enough said.) Yet, in ways subtle and direct, the concert Friday pointed the way for Kerry over these next four weeks, and how to win on November 2.
To start, you need to understand who's showing up to these concerts. Although a fund-raiser for Americans Coming Together (ACT), a federation of the main liberal and labor groups running the Democratic voter-registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in battleground states, the crowd looked more like one found at a Philadelphia Eagles game than at a pro-choice rally. It was middle-aged, beefy, ethnic, and white; I think the only black face in the entire stadium was saxophonist Clarence Clemons. There were more pleated khakis than piercings, more golf shirts than Gucci. It was as middle-class as you can get. In a word, it was Jersey.
That's why the crowd was hitting the hot dog, cheesesteak, and soft pretzel stands when the alternative rock group Bright Eyes opened the evening. And that's why they looked at REM and its lead singer, Michael Stipe, as if they were aliens. REM has a more moody, electronic sound; the band hails from the university town of Athens, Georgia; and its frontman, Michael Stipe, is thin, entirely bald, and that night was wearing all white. (He would have fit in perfectly with Teresa Heinz Kerry and Laura Bush at the first debate.) The crowd was there not for Bright Eyes, not for REM, and not really for Kerry -- they were there for Bruce.
While traditionally strategists see these fans as lunch-bucket voters -- if they vote at all -- this time, it's different: They are security voters. The overriding issue for them is the war on terrorism and in Iraq. During Springsteen's “public service announcement,” the only issue in his litany for why he was supporting Kerry that got any distinguishable applause was Iraq.
This is why Kerry got such a boost from his strong performance in the first debate last Thursday, and why it makes no sense that his strategists have now decided to try, once again, to shift the debate toward domestic concerns. Security is the number-one issue in this election, and the only thing keeping Kerry from cleaning George W. Bush's clock is the president's advantage on who is seen as best able to lead the country in the war in Iraq and against terrorism.
Listening to his set list in Philadelphia, it became clear that Springsteen understands that closing this gap is key to a Kerry victory -- that security must be part of a larger message and indictment of Bush. And when he took the stage, Springsteen, like a seasoned pol, made the case.
First, Springsteen reassured the crowd that they, he, and the cause are patriotic. How? By opening his set with a searing solo-guitar version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” a la Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock. Then, without missing a beat, the band went right into “Born in the USA,” a song so rousing that when it came out in 1984, Ronald Reagan started playing it at his rallies (until Springsteen told him to stop).
With the crowd on its feet, surging with patriotic pride, Springsteen kept them pumped with “Badlands” and its hopeful -- even Edwardsian -- message that: “We'll keep pushin' till its understood / And these badlands start treating us good.” That was followed with Kerry's campaign song, “No Surrender,” and “Lonesome Day,” a hit from the latest album.
Second, now that Springsteen had met the bar on security and patriotism, he began the dismantling of Bush and his presidency. The Boss started with foreign policy. For that he dusted off the rarely played “Lost in the Flood”: “And I said ‘Hey Gunner man, that's quicksand, that's quicksand, that ain't mud / Have you thrown your senses to the war or did you lose them in the flood?'” That was followed with the economic argument: “Johnny 99,” about a guy whose life falls apart when he loses his job at the local auto plant, and “Youngstown,” about that depressed rust-belt city from the epicenter of this year's election, Ohio.
Third, Springsteen moved to indict Bush, the man. It's tricky. After all, although the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll taken after the first debate shows Kerry pulling even with Bush in the horse race, Bush still leads Kerry by a margin of 46 percent to 41 percent on who is more honest and trustworthy, and 56-37 on who is a stronger leader. But as Kerry showed in the first debate, Bush can be -- and must be -- exposed for being the cocooned, privileged, ideologically blinded person that he is.
For this job, Springsteen enlisted a surrogate: John Fogerty. The aging rocker, of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame, went relentlessly negative with the rock classic “Fortunate Son.” From its title to its last word, the song -- while written in 1969 -- is a short but comprehensive takedown of the president for being born to privilege and asking others to foot the bill for his tax cuts and fight his wars. I'm surprised the Bush campaign hasn't demanded equal time every time it's played on the radio.
Finally, to get out the vote, Springsteen played “Born to Run,” and then ended with all the artists singing Patti Smith's “People Have the Power.”
It took two hours, but Springsteen showed how to make the sale: assert your strength and patriotism, hammer Bush on security and his character, and remind swing voters that they're also economically worse off than they were four years ago. Now, it's up to Kerry to hit the same notes.
Kenneth S. Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.
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