Labor leader gives Kerry 'best chance' to beat Bush in '04
Thursday, February 6, 2003
WASHINGTON -- Democrats must "break the bubble" of public support President Bush enjoys on foreign policy if they hope to win in 2004, and Sen. John Kerry has the best chance of doing that, says the AFL-CIO's political chairman, Gerald McEntee.
But the labor federation probably will withhold its endorsement until after the primary season, McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said Wednesday in an interview with Associated Press reporters and editors.
McEntee's support carries weight -- his 1.3 million-member union in the 1992 presidential race came out very early in favor of Bill Clinton, providing the Arkansas governor with political infrastructure at a time when most other unions were backing Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa. AFSCME is one of the largest unions in the AFL-CIO.
Kerry is "enormously grateful for the kind words of President McEntee," said campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs. "Senator Kerry will continue to work hard to earn the respect and support of organized labor and the working families they represent."
National and local unions will endorse candidates, but early backing from the AFL-CIO isn't likely.
"I don't believe that any candidate has enough strength within the AFL-CIO or the American labor movement ... to get an endorsement," McEntee said.
Many Democrats still seem to be reluctant to challenge Bush on Iraq, North Korea and other foreign policy issues. But Kerry has been "quite aggressive" since forming his presidential exploratory committee, McEntee said.
If Democrats "don't break the bubble that surrounds President Bush" on foreign policy, "I think they have real trouble. I think they have real difficulty," he said. "Kerry would have the best chance to do it."
Kerry on foreign policy
Kerry has criticized Bush on several foreign policy issues in recent weeks, saying the president is practicing "blustering unilateralism" that has alienated longtime allies, "spreading anti-Americanism around the world."
After the State of the Union last week, Kerry said Bush "talked about holding Saddam Hussein accountable, but has too often ignored opportunities to unify the world against this brutal dictator."
McEntee said Kerry's status as a Vietnam War hero makes him the best Democrat to counter an expected effort by Bush to make foreign policy and the war on terrorism central to the 2004 campaign.
"Electability is incredibly important" to labor, he said, because "we're under the gun from the White House. We're a target of the White House."
Also intriguing, McEntee said, is retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who often is mentioned as a possible candidate but insists he is not running and is not a member of a political party. Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri also will get a lot of labor support. "He's been an ally, a supporter of working families," McEntee said.
A new, tax-exempt group is being created that will be affiliated with the AFL-CIO to raise unregulated soft money to try to build voter participation among women and minorities in a dozen battleground states. That group and the federation will spend about $35 million -- matching previous presidential elections -- in the 2004 cycle, not including individual unions and their budgets, he said. AFSCME spends about $8.5 million in hard money on elections.
McEntee said he expects Bush to double his 2000 fund-raising record of $100 million.
Unions have been so successful at mobilizing their voters that Republicans in last year's midterm elections borrowed their tactics. But the GOP went a step further, identifying supporters who seldom vote, targeting them and getting them to the polls.
"We're now going to copy some of their strategy," McEntee said.
The labor movement can withstand two more years of Bush, but another term could do big damage, McEntee said. Union membership has been declining as the work force has grown. Just 13.5 percent of workers now belong to unions.
The administration has stripped collective bargaining rights of airport screeners, some Justice Department workers and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The Labor Department also is pursuing tougher financial reporting standards for unions, which they oppose. "If he's re-elected I think they come at us with everything they have," he said.