Tuesday, April 27, 2004
I don't really disagree with anything in John Podhoretz's latest column. I always thought Kerry was a terrible candidate. I also always thought he'd get the nomination. (Well, almost always; I finally gave in and bought stock in Howard Dean pretty much right at the top of the market. I console myself that just about no one predicted the massive Dean meltdown.) But I can't help noting that it's not a terribly good sign that as fervent a Bush supporter as John P. thinks the main reason Bush could have a significant win is that people are not going to come out for Kerry.
There've been a bunch of versions of this theory out there: that Bush's support is solid at 50%, where Kerry's is softer; that Bush's base is energized positively for their candidate, while Kerry's is only energized negatively, against Bush; etc. I'm not sure I buy any of it. I'm not convinced Bush has a solid 50%, and I think Kerry has a pretty solid core of support, even if it is all negative. But more important: re-election campaigns are never referenda on the challenger. If people sour on Bush, they'll vote for Kerry even if they aren't crazy about him. In fact, they'll refuse to learn the things about him that would make them not crazy about him, because learning those things would make it harder to vote for him. Kerry is a truly lousy candidate. But this election won't be about him.
That said, it is kind of amazing what a terrible choice the Democrats made this year. And, unlike Podhoretz, I'm not convinced Edwards would have been such an amazing candidate either. What's striking about the entire 2004 primary field is that none of these guys was ready for prime time. Edwards was a smart but shallow guy trying to jump to the head of the line. Even compared to Bush in 2000 he looked inexperienced. Dean's only credential was that he had inherited the governorship of one of the smallest, whitest, least-urban states in the nation. Nominating him would have been like nominating the mayor of San Diego for President. In wartime. And Gephardt, the only actual political veteran in the bunch, was distinguished primarily for losing - over and over again.
And then there's Kerry. Two decades in the Senate and nothing to show for it. Nothing! No one can come up with a significant piece of legislation he produced. But no one can come up with a significant piece of legislation he blocked, either! For two decades, he has been a backside-covering irrelevancy. This is the best the Democrats could do?
I mean, let's just think about one contrast: John Kerry vs. Bill Bradley, the guy who didn't get the nomination last time.
Bill Bradley, as a Senator, was distinguished for his importance in grappling with and producing legislation on several key issues, none of which were popular in a grandstanding way. Among them were the 1986 tax reform act (one of the most important pieces of tax legislation in the past thirty years, and an effort we should be replicating right now), Latin American debt-relief, and policy towards the former-Communist countries of Eastern Europe and towards post-Soviet Russia. Bradley's one of the most substantive guys the Dems have ever considered nominating, he's a former sports hero, his personality seems free of demons or obsessions, he meets all the requisite liberal litmus tests, and he's a pretty good fundraiser to boot. Yeah, he's about as boring a guy as has ever succeeded in politics . . . but compared to Kerry?
Or let's think about another contrast: John Kerry vs. Bob Kerrey, one of the guys who didn't get the nomination in 1992.
Bob Kerrey, unlike John Kerry, is a real foreign-policy Democrat, deeply involved in policymaking on nuclear weapons proliferation, missile defense, and terrorism. He's a veteran who hasn't spent his entire career milking his war wounds for political advantage. He's also someone who could unapologetically grasp the New Democrat mantle on economic policy. He dated Deborah Winger, and I bet she'd have contributed to his campaign, unlike ex-Kerry girlfriend Morgan Fairchild. And he's acceptably liberal on social issues to be nominated; it wouldn't be a slam-dunk like Bradley, but he'd say the right things to get the nod.
I'm not saying either Bradley or Kerrey would have had a cake-walk to the nomination, to say nothing of the White House. But is there a good reason why any Democrat would, in the abstract, prefer Kerry to either of these guys? I can't think of one.
Look back at the intra-party contests in 1980, 1984, 1988, 1992, even (to an extent) 2000. The debates were (generally) substantive, and the candidates were (generally) serious guys. Carter/Kennedy was a real fight about principles as well as a referendum on a terrible President. Mondale and Hart were both substantive guys and represented a real debate about party direction. Clinton was the standout candidate from the beginning in 1992, but, each in their own way, Kerrey, Tsongas and Brown represented real and substantive challenges to him, and the jilted pro-Cuomo movement did as well. Each of these guys had done something, and represented something. Even the "seven dwarves" of 1988, none of whom was a really plausible President, represented a reasonable array of choices for the Democrats. If you voted for Gore, or Gephardt, or Jackson, or Simon, or Dukakis, you knew what you were voting for. You knew that you were voting for something.
That's just not true about 2004. All Democrats wanted was to get the primary season over with. They did not really debate anything, and they barely vetted the candidates in terms of personality and temperament. Now they're stuck with John Kerry, and their best hope is the fact that, in November, the folks pulling the lever won't really be thinking about him.