I’m not holding my breath, but an apt slogan for Democratic Senator John Kerry might be, “Kerry: Candidate of the Living Dead.” Barely a month ago, Kerry’s presidential campaign seemed to have all the life of three-legged arthritic dog stricken with cancer. Pundits everywhere were polishing their Kerry eulogies, and the candidate had practically been stuffed into a political casket.
On the night of the Iowa Caucuses, however, something rather awkward happened; the supposedly dead presidential contender coolly stepped out of his casket and walked off to become the new prohibitive front runner of the race. Democrats in Iowa, New Hampshire and now 10 other states flocked at the 11th hour to Kerry’s banner, but not, generally speaking, because they particularly liked his economic policy, or his foreign policy, or even his character. Democrats in those states, and across the country, supported and are supporting John Kerry because they consider him to be more “electable.”
Conventional political wisdom holds that voters are generally incapable of voting strategically — they vote for the guy they like, the guy they want to actually have as president. But this year’s Democratic presidential free-for-all has been anything but conventional, and Democratic desperation to evict the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue proved decisive. Over and over again, the refrain was heard: “I like Howard Dean, but I just don’t think he can win.” And so, in a last minute, last-ditch effort to find someone who could, voters settled on the apparently more experienced, apparently more moderate, and certainly more decorated John Kerry.
The problem, as David Brooks pointed out in his New York Times column on Jan. 31, is that “electability is all about Iowa and New Hampshire liberals trying to imagine what Palm Beach County, Florida independents will want in a presidential candidate nine months from now,” and of course Iowa and New Hampshire liberals are not very good at doing this.
I like John Kerry. Most Democrats do. The man fought in the United States Senate for decades to defend democratic values (both the big d and little d kind) and fought in Vietnam for years to defend his country, and neither service should be taken lightly. But for Kerry to be somehow “more electable” than Howard Dean, he has to be in a better position to make a strong case against Bush. And the simple fact is that he isn’t.
Consider what I take to be four of the biggest initiatives of the Bush presidency so far: the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the “No Child Left Behind” Act, and the tax cut bills. These four Bush initiatives are essentially the Bush record, and if we want to persuade the general public to fire its sitting president, we have to persuade that public that the Bush record is bad. The candidate that the Democratic Party needs is thus a candidate who provides a clear contrast with Bush on at least some of these issues, a candidate who has opposed Bush’s bad ideas from the very beginning.
John Kerry is simply not that candidate; his positions on all four issues have been seriously compromised. He voted to authorize the war in Iraq, but opposed the first Gulf War and voted against funding our present occupation. He voted for the Patriot Act, even though today he calls it deeply flawed. He voted for No Child Left Behind, but now angrily denounces it on the campaign trail as well. On tax cuts he has the opposite problem: he voted against the tax cuts, but now wants to preserve pieces of them.
Are all these positions explainable? Of course. Senators are inevitably put into difficult positions when, at the end of the day, they are asked to vote either “yes” or “no” on issues that are never black and white. The war in Iraq, the tax cuts, the education bill and the Patriot Act are all enormously complex issues — like most thinking Americans, Kerry supported elements of each, and didn’t have the luxury of voting only for those elements that he supported. That’s the hard life of a senator.
But maybe that’s also why it’s been 40 years since a senator ascended to the presidency — the nuances of a Senate vote simply don’t translate well into a 30-second sound bite. To people who take the time to examine the record, Kerry’s votes are explainable, but Americans usually don’t examine the record in an election year, and in a 30-second ad with scary music, Kerry’s votes and statements look like egregious flip-flops. Armed with a $200 million war chest, Republicans will gleefully paint him as the quintessential Massachusetts liberal, a waffling and indecisive wimp pathetically incapable of taking on the Saddams and Osamas of the world. One of my good friends on campus keeps referring to John Kerry as “princely.” It doesn’t matter how princely he is; the cold hard fact is that he is simply not positioned to run against this president.
Which is too bad, because he seems almost certain to do so anyway. If Democratic primary voters really care about electability, they must take one last hard look at John Kerry before they nominate him. The party would be much better off if Kerry would politely climb back into his political grave.
Roger Low is a freshman in Branford College. He is the head of publicity for Yalies for Howard Dean.