Kerry on the Brink


It appears that the Kerry campaign is about to implode, which was predictable in some ways but too damn bad just the same. According to the NYT’s David Halbfinger, the younger faction led by Jim Jordan was in a tug o’ war with Gore’s old political advisor, Bob Shrum. The proximate cause isn’t hard to figure out: Shrum is considered by some to be responsible for the debacle that was Gore’s 2000 campaign, and Jordan apparently felt he was going to do the same for Kerry.

The real cause is, of course, numbers: Kerry, the one-time frontrunner-to-be, has been completely eclipsed by Howard Dean. So thoroughly has Kerry been run off the stage, in fact, that a Newsweek poll shows him even with–wait for it!–Carol Moseley Braun at a mere 7%. A more inglorious comedown would be hard to imagine. He’s even trailing Joe Lieberman, which means the only candidates he’s beating are Kucinich and Sharpton, and at the rate he’s been sinking, they’re hot on his tail and Braun will likely pass him soon if nothing changes. Ergo, the shake-up.

But whether you fault Shrum’s cautious approach or Jordan’s concentration on trying to take the activist core away from Dean for Kerry’s lousy numbers (and I have no idea which faction has been calling the shots for the past few months), the one thing nobody is arguing about is that Kerry’s on the ropes. He will probably lose in NH, a neighboring state that was only a few short months ago considered such a Kerry stronghold that it was a lock. If he does, his candidacy is all but over.

If so, the truth is he has nobody but himself to blame. My guess, based on what seems to me to be a schizophrenic campaign, is that Kerry’s been playing both ends against the middle: he’s been following Jordan’s plan by attacking Dean more often than Bush, but he’s been using Frum’s approach everywhere else by tailoring his opinions and proposals closely to poll results, taking no chances on alienating any Demo faction or saying anything that could hurt him in the general when the campaign has to swing to the center. It’s a formula that Bill Clinton used to great effect, but Clinton took his lumps for it. He could steamroller right over those rough spots with his passion, his charisma, and oratorical skills we haven’t seen since Bryan, but Kerry is no Bill Clinton. It hasn’t worked for him, and it won’t. For one thing, he can’t talk.

But if you had to pick a single cause for Kerry’s poor showing, it wouldn’t be any of those things–not the campaign in-fighting or the poll-watching or the lack of charisma. As negative as they are, they’re not the root cause of the surprising wholesale abandonment of his candidacy by rank-and-file Dems. The root cause was a single vote, and the AJC’s Cynthia Tucker nails it to the wall:

Among the chattering classes, much has been made of infighting among Kerry’s campaign aides, a conflict that some blame for his current troubles. But the torpor of the Kerry campaign can be traced to one act, one decision, one vote: his support of the resolution giving President Bush the authority to invade Iraq.Had Kerry voted “no,” he’d be the Democratic front-runner right now, bringing credibility on foreign policy because of his military service while also upstaging Wesley Clark on domestic policy.

Even now, a year later, Kerry has trouble explaining his vote to go to war. You’d think a man like Kerry — a decorated Vietnam veteran who later became an outspoken critic of that war — would have a succinct, indeed passionate, explanation for his vote. But Kerry stammers, sputters, doubles back, never able to give a short and simple response.

Perhaps that’s because Kerry’s vote was based on politics, not principle.

Bingo.

I remember the disappointment of liberals and progressives at the time, who had thought–up until that moment–that Kerry would be one of the few to stand firm. His statements prior to the vote gave us reason to think that and–as Tucker points out–nothing had changed:

As Congress debated Iraq last year, Kerry became one of the Senate’s most articulate critics of Bush’s rush to war. “Until we have properly laid the groundwork and proved to our fellow citizens and our allies that we really have no other choice, we are not yet at the moment of unilateral decision-making in going to war against Iraq,” he wrote in The New York Times in September 2002.But just a month later — with nothing in the president’s approach to Iraq having changed — he gave Bush that unilateral authority.

The minute he did it, we knew it for what it was: a political vote for political reasons and a repudiation of everything he had stood for up to then. He was trying to have it both ways once more: by speaking against the war, he hoped to placate the anti-war activists who are the Dem’s shock troops and the ones who would turn out to work for and vote in the primaries; by voting for the resolution, he hoped to muffle the inevitable charges of treason that would come from the Publican attack-press during the general.

Maybe it was an intelligent choice at the time, but smart or not, it was a political choice that had nothing to do with principle, nothing to do with belief, nothing whatever to do with anything except his ambitions for his political future, and it left a yawning hole in the Democratic firmament that Howard Dean was quick to exploit. In fact, I could make a pretty good argument that had Kerry followed the conscience expressed in his own statements and voted against the resolution with a strong speech laying out his reasons, the candidacy of Howard Dean might never have existed.

But he didn’t. He played to expediency and he’s paying for it now. Which is probably as it should be,

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