You gotta hand it to John Kerry...
six months ago, his was a presidential bid barely on life support and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean was all the rage. Those political pundits who did not outright posit the possibility, if not the probability, of Howard Dean as the Democratic Party's 2004 presidential nominee were just about certain that we might, as that Party gathered in Boston for their quadrennial National Convention, see something that had not happened in over half a century: a multi-ballot Major Party Convention, perhaps even with a dark horse of a nominee whose candidacy was not yet on the menu; "Draft Hillary" sites abounded on the Internet!
What had happened to the once-vaunted Senator Kerry?
A year before that- as 2002 turned into 2003- Kerry was, by most accounts, the most likely front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. After all, the Bay State's Junior Senator was just coming off a decisive re-election the November before, a race in which no Republican dared oppose him, one in which he took 4/5 of the vote over a Third Party candidate and a late, quixotic write-in bid.
It was true that the Massachusetts Senator was not going to get the nomination so easily handed to him on a silver platter, of course: his future running mate, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, was attempting to evoke (up to a point!) comparisons to that most recent Democratic heavyweight, Bill Clinton, in his own presidential nomination bid- but Edwards was still seen largely as pretty much a regional candidate; there was that by now old political professional, Congressman Dick Gephardt of Missouri, who had given up his long-time position as Leader of the House Democrats because (depending on whom you wanted to believe) either he would be missing many a session of Congress whilst campaigning for the White House or he saw that, in the wake of his Party actually losing seats to the Party of an incumbent President in the most recent Midterm Elections, he was going to get pushed out if he didn't jump first; and, of course, there was Howard Dean- then just finishing out the last days and weeks of his nearly dozen years as Vermont's Chief Executive: but the core issue for Dean, a physician- the high cost of prescription drugs and the effect of this on overall health care, was watered down significantly when Congress adopted a however lukewarm Prescription Drug Benefit for seniors on Medicare.
What then happened to change all this? More to the point, what contributed to the sudden rise of Governor Dean's presidential candidacy, largely at Senator Kerry's expense, throughout 2003?
Part of the answer lay with the person of John Kerry, of course: he had, of course, to deal with the spectre of prostate cancer shortly after he took the oath of office for his 4th Senate term (though the treatment for same did not seem to slow him appreciably, for he was back in the active political spotlight ere long); moreover, his patrician, stentorian- one might even say, dour- manner did not seem to immediately well connect with the average Democratic voter.
But the seeds of Kerry's undoing last year can be summed up in one word, a Proper Noun:
In the wake of how events have transpired since the fall of Baghdad and the concomitant toppling of the regime of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, we sometimes forget that President George W. Bush enjoyed rather widespread, supermajority support for the war among Americans (even as it was being decried by similar percentages of the populace among our European allies) when it first began. The loss of a lot of this one-time support for the war is now painted as principally the result of deception over motives on the part of the Bush Administration and the supermajority of March 2003 is today seen as merely an outward expression of strongest support for those who were to bear the brunt of the battle ("oppose the war, but support the warrior").
But this analysis is overly simplistic, containing more than a little revisionism on the part of most of those who opposed war with Iraq from the get-go (many of whom would likely have opposed it even had Saddam, somehow, actually been a direct threat to the United States) and quite a lot of "buyer's remorse", once Iraq began to descend more and more into chaos as 2003 wore on, on the parts of many of those who had initially supported American intervention in that unfortunate country.
The problem for John Kerry (and, for that matter, John Edwards) was that the Congressional Joint Resolution authorizing President Bush to go to war in Iraq in the first place came before Congress back in October 2002- even before Kerry's subsequent big victory in his Senate race in Massachusetts! The Democrats, who just barely controlled the Senate at the time, made a conscious- indeed, one could call it a politically cynical- decision to vote on the Joint Resolution "early" because it did have such supermajority support and the Party did not want Iraq (with, so it seemed at the time, possible political benefit to the Republicans) looming over the many other issues Democrats wanted to make the focus of their Midterm Election campaign, their ultimately failed attempt to hold onto the Majority in the Senate and make gains in the House.
Thus, although he pledged to ask "tough questions" and "hold the President accountable", Kerry ultimately voted for the Resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq. Although no one could know it at the time, it was a vote that very nearly derailed his presidential campaign as the ensuing year wore on.
For, when the wheels started coming off the American steamroller in Iraq throughout the Summer and on into the Fall of 2003, Senator Kerry- the very personification of a war hero standing up, on principle, against the very war in which he fought, thanks to his outstanding military record in the Vietnam Conflict combined with his later passion as a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War- found himself in a rather precarious political position. Although one could argue that his middle age was, albeit on a completely different level, pretty much repeating that which he had experienced in his younger days (there was a clear analogy between Kerry the Vietnam Veteran Against the War and Kerry the Senator who voted for the use of force in Iraq but who, as a presidential candidate, would now hold the incumbent President's feet to the fire on Iraq), Kerry seemed unable to well articulate this- especially among younger anti-war activists and allied inveterate Bush-haters.
Whether it was his demeanor and delivery or his seeming inability to truly understand the power of that newest tool of youthful rebellion, the Internet, Kerry seemed to have well missed the boat as more and more Americans turned against the Bush Administration's policies in Iraq. As he tried to explain why he was so strongly against a war for which he had actually voted, Kerry began to look more and more like another floundering Democratic front-runner, the Edmund Muskie of 1972, and I myself was even reminded of an old comedy sketch by a political impressionist of that long-ago era, David Frye in which Frye-as-Muskie is heard to say: "I came out against the war on Moratorium Day-- well before Noon! Not like some political opportunists who waited until four or five o'clock"
The man who had once so passionately expressed his opposition to another, earlier war he had also considered unjust seemed utterly incapable of galvanizing those who simply had found themselves another champion for their views among the Democratic presidential contenders, one Howard Dean. For his part, Dean- looking for a replacement for a Prescription Drug Benefit issue that no longer seemed to be working for him- did not disappoint, latching onto the war in Iraq with gusto. Well working the Internet in a manner that Kerry (and, for that matter, the other Democratic contenders) did not so well emulate, Dean emerged as a most strident, anti-Bush fund-raising juggernaut as 2003 drew to a close.
Come Christmastime, most Democrats I personally knew had already conceded the nomination to Dean-- and most of these also had already sadly accepted the fact that Dean would lose to Bush in the General Election because, in the main, he was such a marginal candidate. It was this last observation that would actually prove to be Kerry's salvation once the calendar page was turned to 2004.
What active rank-and-file Democrats saw, surely the political hierarchy of their Party also must have seen. However much they might have pooh-poohed (where not outright denigrated) D.C.'s pre-Iowa/New Hampshire advisory Presidential Preference Primary held this past 13 January, they certainly closely read its "tea leaves" in much the same way I myself did: as an indication that Howard Dean did not have all that much "pull" within traditional Democratic constituencies.
The election statistics in D.C. (one of the most loyal of Democratic Party jurisdictions, containing a large quantity of some of the most committed Democrats: urban African-Americans) clearly showed this: yes, Dean had won in D.C. (though, of course, none of the other major contenders- Kerry, Edwards, Senator Joe Lieberman, retired General Wesley Clark, Dick Gephardt- had [in a gesture toward the overly vaunted status of Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's Primary] participated) but the election returns therein illustrated, beyond much doubt, that the Vermonter's support within the Black community (compared to the remaining, admittedly somewhat lesser, contenders on the ballot- Al Sharpton, Carol Moseley-Braun and Dennis Kucinich) was not all that significant. Other traditionally Democratic constituencies in both Iowa and New Hampshire thereafter followed suit in largely rejecting Howard Dean and, as we now can see in retrospect, the former Vermont Governor's candidacy was already "toast": Dean's roman candle had finally fizzled out and was fast falling back to earth.
Senator Kerry ended up being the primary (no pun intended) beneficiary of this Dean implosion. Though he had to, for a short time, well fend off the contention that Senator Edwards was making that Kerry could not, unlike Edwards, do all that well in the South (clearly a George W. Bush stronghold), the Massachusetts Senator did well enough in the South among Democrats to put the final nail in the coffin of the North Carolinian's principal argument for his own candidacy. Kerry having, thus, wrapped up the presidential nomination fairly early (an awesome feat considering how so "dead in the water" this former Naval officer had appeared only three months earlier), he now had to face the difficult task of unifying his somewhat fractured Party (a Party that included Iraq war hawk Joe Lieberman as well as the anti-war "Deaniacs" whose prospects had melted away so much and so fast).
The most obvious way for Kerry to unite the Party was the very man in the White House, George W. Bush. For, if there is one thing that almost all Democrats- regardless of whom they might have supported for the Presidency during the Primary campaign- can agree on, it is that 'Dub-ya' just has to go. But there was always this lurking danger of strident Bush-bashing a-la Howard Dean's most vocal supporters backfiring even as Kerry now tried to reach out to the moderates and centrists, the Independent voters, whom Kerry would need to have vote for him in order for him to put together an Electoral College victory come this November.
One of the less endearing legacies of the Clinton White House years is a kind of siege mentality which so quickly set in among hard core Democrats, particularly once the Republicans had taken control of the entire Congress for the first time in four decades back in 1994, turning the once uplifting, positive, even optimistic message on which Bill Clinton had ridden into the White House two years before into some rather dark, sectarian creed. This attitude reached its maturity (assuming one can even use that word in this context!) during the Impeachment Crisis of 1998-1999 and seemed to come out all in a gush once these Democrats could, in the immediate wake of Clinton's Acquittal in the Senate, dance about and sing "Ding Dong, the wicked Starr [or, for that matter, Newt] is dead!"
Then came Florida 2000...
The abject stridency that anger over George W. Bush's- to these hardcore Democrats, "illegitimate"- election now fueled actually spilled over like some toxic mass which only served to undermine the Democratic Party itself in the Midterm Elections two years later. Publicly considering the new Republican President to be something fairly beneath even Stupid, Bush-bashers went on a rampage that was only relatively briefly interrupted in the wake of the terrible events of 11 September 2001 and immediate support for at least the initial phase of the War on International Terrorism (meaning the military action against Talibanic Afghanistan). But, while so waiting for the President to, say, slip on a the political equivalent of a banana peel or take a political cream pie to the face, these same Democrats forgot to try and actually win the 2002 Elections!
To his credit, Senator John Kerry seems to recognize this and he also seems to have done his level best to keep the anti-Bush rhetoric (some of which even embarrassed a Howard Dean, to the point where- at one New York rally of "Deaniacs" [held while Dean was still a viable presidential contender]- Dean himself had to chastise his own supporters about the language they had used while denigrating President Bush) to a minimum. However, even now- as the Democrats get set to open their National Convention in Boston- this might be more easily said than done: the outcome of the 2002 Midterm Elections (not exactly a happy one for Democrats), combined with all the later Democratic activist anger over "Mr. Bush's war", has only made the Bush-bashing even the more strident.
So far, Kerry has played it pretty smart. He tacked clear of the whole controversy involving just what was or wasn't President Bush's National Guard service back during the Vietnam era, saying- simply- "[Bush] served his country, as did I"; he has also stayed away from much of the more strident anti-Bush rhetoric of the activists. Yet there have been slip-ups: an open mike catching an away-from-the-podium campaigning Kerry referring to Bush and Vice-President Cheney as liars; notions floating around that the French and German governments- both of which so openly opposed American intervention in Iraq- have indicated to Senator Kerry that they would prefer he be elected President (and just how does that go down in a Middle America quietly chowing down on their "Freedom Fries"?)
This year's Democratic National Convention, therefore, is the one clear opportunity for John Kerry and his Party to make clear that there is far more to both the candidate and his Party than simply being "the Anti-Bush". After all, there will be no significant competing message (though, yes, the over-the-air and Cable TV news networks will, of course, have their "anti-pundits", Republican guest commentators who will let as much air as they possibly can out of all the red, white and blue Kerry/Edwards balloons as they discuss the happenings on the Convention floor during breaks in the Prime Time proceedings over the next four days), there will be no debate with the opposition and, hence, no rebuttal (once a headline speaker at the Convention- a Bill Clinton, John Edwards, John Kerry himself- begins speaking, there will be no intrusions on the broadcast coverage and, as a result, the message alone will get through to the viewer). This is one chance in the course of the 2004 Presidential Campaign for the Democratic Party to so openly speak to the average American voter with a largely uninterrupted voice.
That Party will now have to use its voice to show it well knows that, while being the "Anti-Bush" might satisfy a whole host of Democratic constituencies, it will do little- if anything- to actually help elect the Kerry/Edwards ticket. John Kerry, John Edwards and their fellow Democrats have to boldly demonstrate that they have much on which to run for the Presidency besides "At least we're not George W. Bush".
There are still plenty of potential pitfalls, however: for instance, one of the themes of this Convention is "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World" and Senator Kerry himself has often talked, while campaigning, about how he would get the world as a whole (via NATO, if not the UN) much more involved than President Bush himself did in decisions involving issues such as those behind the war in Iraq. But the Massachusetts Senator has yet to really address two fundamental questions that naturally flow from his position: 1. how much should the U.S. actually yield in its exercise of its sovereign rights of self-defense, as it sees these itself, to international pressure? 2. what happens if one asks the rest of the world to help in some military endeavor one- even a John Kerry- sees as most just and they then simply say 'no'?
The above is but one example of the kinds of issues and questions within the great task that John Kerry and the Democrats face as their Convention unfolds this coming week.
Besides, in a little over a month, George W. Bush and his Republicans get their turn!