They’d Rather Be In Philadelphia, Battling for Kerry

PHILADELPHIA-Wandering through a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia as night fell on Tuesday, canvassing houses on Greendale Road to make sure Democrats had voted, I ran into two other Kerry volunteers coming the other way on the same street. Turned out they were from New York, of course. East 52nd. West 84th. Carrying the same campaign sheets as me. And there for the same reasons that I was, shattered ideals about their country.

“We are the laughing stock of the world,” Amy said. “What got me here?” said Mitch. “The arrogance and Iraq. People in other countries hate us-they think we’re a stupid country for electing Bush.”

If the postmortems reveal that a mobilized Kerry field operation brought in this election down the stretch to national parity, or even to a Pennsylvania victory, that was the field in a nutshell: a handful of New Yorkers meeting in the dark under trees in Philadelphia. Grown-up people with worldly rage and embarrassment willing to go great distances for a man they regarded as stable and liberal. On Election Day, this swing state was flooded by New Yorkers, Marylanders, New Jerseyites. Even Europeans had shown up, trying to keep their accents a secret, except to other workers. A Scotsman was driving vans. An Englishman was waving posters at Broad and Market.

“I got to the airport in Los Angeles on Sunday and went online to see that Pennsylvania was closer than Ohio, so I bought my ticket to Philadelphia,” said a black guy on the van I took out of Center City to the bricklayers’ union in Northeast Philadelphia, where the canvassing teams were organized. “I travel the world, and people hate us.”

A woman in front of us in the van turned and said, “I fasted on Friday and thought of him leaving. I just want to see Bush get on the plane-just like his father. Leave the White House and say goodbye, and get on that plane.”

“And from there to the Hague,” said the computer geek next to me.

The Kerry volunteers have always felt that their intensity was not being measured by think polls. They’ve had endless discussions in recent days about all the ways that the conventional wisdom was wrong about the Kerry vote. The failure to count young cell-phone users-because pollsters are not allowed to call people who have to pay for the call. The failure to count “unlikely voters”-and there again, the “unlikely voters,” if they vote (and some of them must in the end), are Kerry supporters.

And most of all, the failure to measure the depth of commitment. When I volunteered undercover for the Bush team in Cincinnati, Ohio, in late October, I met no one coming in from out of town, no one with that kind of motivation. The workers were party operatives or long-haired high-school kids getting a few bucks. Next to me at the phone bank in Philadelphia was a girl from Rwanda: Yvette. “Kerry is the right choice,” she said in a sweet accent, talking to union members. “He’s an incipient fascist,” a girl named Jen kept saying when she hung up the phone at the phone bank. Of course, she was from New York.

Believing now, late on Tuesday night, that the field operation has won its battle, at least here-that John Kerry was chosen for President at least by the state of Pennsylvania-I offer a couple of bold assessments of the electorate. The heyday of the social conservative is over; their power is ebbing. “Stem-cell research-that’s why everyone in my house voted for Kerry,” a 25-year-old smoking a cigarette, said as he got out of his car at 7 p.m. Friday after leaving the polls. More even than Iraq, the issue of stem-cell research has exposed the Republican Party to the American people as a party captured by a radical fringe. The country is moving on, and Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s cancer has only underlined the issue.

The other strong feeling is that liberalism has a face again. George W. Bush’s radicalism has had the effect of mobilizing the opposition as nothing else in my lifetime since Vietnam. A movement has been reborn again, and reborn around the values of intelligence and worldliness. “I’ve never done this before,” said a lesbian woman who was driving volunteers from the bricklayers’ union. “But he’s a war criminal.”

These views were expressed again and again among the intense Kerry supporters: that Bush had deeply embarrassed them and stolen away their ideals of themselves as a nation, stolen their pride. They do not like to think of themselves as a country acting alone. They like to see themselves in a world community. They like to travel to other countries and be accepted. The Republican message has been defiance of community and world opinion, and it has energized middle-aged idealists as never before.

Center City Philadelphia on Tuesday was a New Lefty’s conception of utopia on Election Day. Everywhere you stepped, bright young men and women in suits wore Kerry buttons, even carried Kerry posters. The headquarters was mobbed by volunteers from everywhere. In Rittenhouse Square, dogs’ ears had Kerry stickers stuck to them. Crowds of people at intersections held up Kerry posters and horns rang out in a deafening series. All races. A young black man jumped up and down at a corner on Walnut Street with a Kerry poster and called out with a smile to everyone who passed to vote for Kerry so he could get a job. And a table across from City Hall sold “Vote or Die” T-shirts-for $1.25 if you were young and black, more if you looked well-heeled.

Over the highway nearby was a billboard with the ghoulish pumpkin head of Dick Cheney below the headline that he’d made $25 million off of Halliburton. Just up the road was a billboard of a smiling Kerry with the message: “Believes in God, too. Just doesn’t use Him as a P.R. man.” Signed: “Rednecks for Kerry.”

The rage, the intensity-they didn’t measure that. But we knew it all the time. And tonight, this is a city-and the country I met is a country-captured by a vision, captured by Kerry.