As regular readers know, we’ve been expressing doubts about how effective Kerry will be as the Democratic nominee in the general election. Part of our hesitation revolves around his spotty record, his expedient votes, his corporate ties, and his ability (or lack of it) to generate enthusiasm for his campaign. The parts we haven’t talked much about are his long-standing unwillingness to take a stand on anything and his tendency to play it safe when campaigning. Dean–and sheer desperation–seems to have put a little iron in his spine the last few weeks, and that’s good. The question is, will it last? His campaign staff is loaded with DLC establishment-types, the same guys responsible for Al Gore’s weak performance in 2000. If they take the same approach with Kerry, I think it’s not unreasonable to expect the same result–a close election that the win-at-any-cost Radcon Republicans will have another opportunity to steal.
A recent rebuttal ad countering the Publican accusation that Kerry is beholden to “special interests” (“More Than Anyone”–requires Windows Media or Real Player) indicates that Kerry is willing to fight back when he has to. It’s a solid, effective if low-key ad that lists amounts the Bush campaign has received from some of its biggest contributors–oil, banks, Enron–and ends with a tag-line that says Bush is attacking Kerry’s record because “he can’t defend his own.” Not bad.
But then in yesterday’s Boston Globe, Scott Lehigh catalogues some disturbing observations about Kerry’s recent behavior in interviews.
SINCE EMERGING as the Democratic presidential front-runner, John Kerry has put his campaign on cautious cruise control.That’s a problem, for it has brought one of Kerry’s worst weaknesses to the fore: his penchant for equivocation. That shortcoming was on full display in Sunday’s Democratic debate in Milwaukee.
Let’s start with MSNBC anchor Lester Holt’s simple question about whether, in Kerry’s view, the Republican campaign against him has crossed an inappropriate line.
Kerry: “Well, that’s for the American people to judge.” Now, this is hardly the most important matter in the free world. But surely Kerry, whose campaign has regularly warned that he will be ferocious in countering unfair attacks, must have an opinion about whether or not the campaign has been above-board.
On to substance. Craig Gilbert of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel asked whether, given the loss of jobs of the last few years, Kerry would again vote for NAFTA and permanent normal trade relations with China, both of which are unpopular in Wisconsin.
Rather than answering directly, Kerry embarked on a discussion of the need for enforceable environment and labor standards in all future trade agreements. Gilbert: “But no regrets about those votes?”
Kerry: “I regret the way that they haven’t been enforced, sure.” That seems to suggest that Kerry stands by his votes for the trade agreements, but who knows?
That’s exactly the sort of ducking-and-covering that could sink him. It feeds the worst feelings on both sides–to his Democratic constituency it looks (and is) the kind of spineless equivocating we thought the party had learned from Dean was a dead-end loser; to his radcon opponents, it gives their charges of waffling and “He’ll say anything to get elected” conscienceless ambition substance and credibility. It’s an approach almost guaranteed to turn our side off and the other side into high gear. It seems that without Dean pushing him, Kerry may have lapsed back into his standard campaign stance: the same non-committal, talking-out-of-both-sides-of-his-mouth slipperiness that let Dean blow by him in the months before the primaries.
If Kerry thinks he can wait until the last minute in the general to come on strong and still beat Bush as he did Dean, he’s playing a very dangerous game. Gore played that game last time, and we know what happened then.