Monday, December 02, 2002
David Frum is unimpressed with John Kerry. I read the same Klein piece he did; I didn't come away feeling like the author couldn't stomach Kerry. Mind you, I didn't come away convinced he liked the guy, but look, the guy's unlikeable. It's possible to stomach, even admire, people you don't like.
I think Kerry is a pompous ass who honestly believes what he says. He's not Bill Clinton - a man with no soul and a bottomless need for approval, but with an excellent grasp of the American psyche and of politics as the art of the possible. Clinton appeared to have restored Democratic fortunes through deft tactical maneuvering and the force of his personality, but it turns out it was all about him; the party didn't fundamentally change at all. He's not Al Gore - a man who destroyed himself trying to live up to his father's dreams and demands, who understands himself and his country not at all, and has shown absolutely appalling character flaws every time he has been in a position not merely to advise but to lead. Gore comes close to being the personification of the self-destruction of the Democratic Party. And, with respect to Frum, he's not Michael Dukakis or Walter Mondale. The Democrats he resembles most (to me) are Bill Bradley, Jimmy Carter and Adlai Stevenson. These were thoughtful, introspective men, with a profound sense of their own destiny and righteousness but who were fundamentally secure in themselves and fundamentally honest. They didn't take ideological dictation and they resisted trimming when their principles were unpopular. They may have been - they often were - wrong, but they were honorable opponents.
They were also politically inept, cold, overly intellectual, and were repeatedly mugged when reality failed to conform to their preconceptions. They all would rather be right than President, and they were all over-sure of their own rightness and rejecting of outside input. They were, fundamentally, failures, and I expect Kerry will fail as well. I wouldn't vote for him. But I don't think Frum is right that he is running on the "we wuz robbed" platform, nor that he is running as a "Wahhabi Democrat." Indeed, it's a peculiar charge for a principled conservative to throw; what would Frum say about such a characterization of Bush, who ran on a platform that was pretty faithful to conservative shibboleths?
I think there are only two candidates in the race who are certain to run entirely negative campaigns of this type: Gore and Daschle. Neither of them knows how to do anything else. Dean is running as Bruce Babbitt, the goo-goo candidate. Edwards, I have predicted before, will not run; he doesn't want to lose, which he would, and he has plenty of time to run in the future. If he ran, he'd be running as Al Gore circa 1988: the token Southerner who is too young and inexperienced to win. The prospect of a Davis campaign is too humorous to contemplate. I can't think of a good Democratic precedent for someone so absolutely loathed attempting the Presidency. The obvious precedent in American history is Nixon. Scaryyyyy. Gephardt has the potential to carve out Scoop Jackson territory if he keeps tacking right on the war. Remember, Scoop was an unreconstructed New Dealer on economic matters, just like Gephardt, but a muscular internationalist and anti-Communist abroad. Gephardt has about as much chance of winning the nod in 2004 as Jackson did in 1976. But if he ran a strong pro-war race in the primaries, that would be clarifying - if nothing else, it would force Kerry to sharpen his own thinking on the subject. Who else is in? Dodd? Not bloody likely. Bayh? Not this year; he's another one who wants to win, and has time. I guess there's still Lieberman. People think Lieberman is the Scoop Jackson candidate, but I don't buy it. After his performance in 2000, I really don't know how Lieberman runs convincingly. If he runs against affirmative action, for school choice, for a faith-positive social policy, and for the war, he won't get a single primary vote. If he runs as a domestic interest-group candidate but on a strong pro-war platform, I hate to say it, but his support of the war will look like a "Jewish thing" and will hurt the cause of the war among Democrats. Lieberman's destiny is to be a Senator. He is in no position to change his party, and if he prostitutes himself to win the support of interest groups who don't trust him, he'll have turned into Al Gore.
When you look at the lineup, it becomes clear why Kerry looks like the man to beat. He and Gephardt are the only strong candidates who do not have to run a campaign consisting entirely of resentment, and Gephardt is a too-familiar face with a history of losing and with instincts that put him at odds with the party's liberal donor base. We'll see on the stump whether Kerry actually stands for anything or whether, like Joe Lieberman, he throws anything innovative he believes overboard in obeisance to the party's interest groups. Bill Bradley in 2000 ran on a health-care proposal that was a lot more interesting and promising than anything else the Democrats have cooked up, and that Republicans could probably have compromised with to solve some the problem of the uninsured. If Kerry does something like that - on health care, or on education, or on CO2 emissions - he'll have done the Democrats a real service. And even if he loses (as I expect he will), he'll have done a service to the country. If he runs a purely negative campaign, such as the Democrats ran in 2000 and 2002, he'll have to bear part of the blame for their continuing slide into oblivion.
I'm going to make a more specific prediction. John McCain still hates the Bush Administration and he is genuinely friendly with John Kerry. If Kerry breaks with Democratic orthodoxy enough to propose real solutions to a couple of serious domestic problems, and if he runs a pro-military, muscular campaign on foreign policy terms that nonetheless stresses greater multilateralism and emphasis on nation-building - basically, a Peter Beinart foreign policy brief - he will get McCain's explicit support. How strongly McCain supports Kerry in his Presidential bid should be an index to how well he is likely to do, both in the primaries and in the general election. There are still enough McCainiacs out there that his support is worth a modest boost in electoral prospects. And 2004 is his last chance to use that rapidly waning influence. We'll see if this prediction is any better than my previous track record, which is pretty abysmal.