The trouble with Kerry.

Political commentary and more.
March 1 2004 6:20 PM

The Trouble With Kerry

Your one-stop center for doubts about JFK2.

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As a Democrat, I have two big fears about John Kerry. The first is that he'll lose. The second is that he'll win. Let's take the second possibility first. One reason Kerry might lose, after all, is an inchoate public intuition that he would not be a successful president.

It isn't easy to be a successful president in the best of times. The Constitution intentionally establishes a stalemate machine, in which two houses of Congress and the White House have to agree in order for anything to get done. Even when one party controls all three power centers, it's hard to achieve dramatic reforms. In 1992, Clinton became president with Democrats in control of both the House and Senate. His top legislative priority was passage of a health care plan. He didn't get it. When one party controls Congress and another the White House--the likely situation in Kerry's first two years, at least--it's even harder to do big things.

Failed presidencies were almost considered the norm before Reagan and Clinton came along. Nothing in the system has really changed since then, except a) general partisan bitterness has gotten much, much worse; b) gerrymandering has made incumbent legislators harder to defeat and, therefore, more ideological and unpersuadable; and c) the easier national problems have, almost by definition, been addressed, leaving us with the most intractable dilemmas: paying for health care and the boomers' retirement, dealing with global environmental effects and immigration along with trade and the consequential disappearance of high-paying, low-skilled jobs, etc. Even the welfare mess, which had resisted solution for five decades, seems in retrospect a relatively simple problem--there, at least, the voters had made up their minds. (They wanted recipients to work!) With an unexceptional politician in office, the familiar Nixon-Ford-Carter pattern could well reassert itself: The president gets a handful of months after his or her inauguration to accomplish reforms of significance. Then he gets bogged down, turns to foreign policy, and eventually retires unceremoniously.

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Kerry does bring several advantages to the job. Most obviously, if elected he should come into office owing less to the Democratic special interests groups than any postwar Democratic president--certainly less than some of his primary rivals. Unions? They endorsed Dean or Gephardt, and did so little for them one wonders when the press will stop depicting labor as a major player. Civil rights groups? Kerry once expressed some qualms about affirmative action--more on those later--which didn't endear him to the civil rights establishment. And it's not the black vote that has put him way out in front for the nomination. The senior lobby? Kerry once also made approving noises about "means-testing"--shaving the benefits of the affluent elderly, a notion that's anathema to AARP.  Kerry is certainly unencumbered enough to embrace what Bruce Reed calls the "only ... winning formula in today's politics," namely being "better, and bigger, than his party."

I'll also concede the Conventional Wisdom that Kerry is a good hand in the seconds and minutes of a crisis--when bullets are actually flying, or bombers are on the way. It's only after the crisis subsides that he turns into a play-it-safe straddler! But I'm getting ahead of myself. There are at least four factors that suggest Kerry is more likely to be a failed president than a successful one: Unwillingness to take political risks is only #2.

1. Does he work well with others? The worry here isn't so much that Kerry is an untested executive--he's never run anything larger than his Senate office--but that the presidency requires more than mere executive competence. A CEO can give orders, but to make the Founding Fathers' balky triple-veto system work, a president has to cajole congressmen and construct complicated alliances. Is that something Kerry is likely to be good at--or is he more likely to be a Jimmy Carter-style president, aloof and resented even within his own party?

The hints in Kerry's senatorial résumé aren't encouraging. Legislating is an almost pathologically collaborative effort, and Kerry has been a conspicuous non-performer in the legislation department. Time magazine found exactly "three substantive bills passed with Kerry's name on them." Two of these "had to do with marine research and protecting fisheries." (The other was "designed to provide grants for women starting small businesses.") Kerry's record as a senator for two decades would be embarrassing were it not for his investigations into drug commerce and his initial digging into illegal aid for the Nicaraguan Contras.

Investigating, of course, is less of a collaborative effort than legislating. But being president seems more like legislating. It doesn't help that Kerry is not well-liked in Massachusetts ("We're all trying to put our arms around him," said one beefy Irish pol from Massachusetts at the Kerry victory party in Manchester, N.H.) or that he has broken his word when it's in his interest to do so--as when he broke a heralded spending-cap agreement with his GOP rival, William Weld, in the closing days of his 1996 race.

2. No visible political courage:  The great question for Kerry biographers is how a man who showed bravery on the battlefield could demonstrate so little of it in his political life. Bill Clinton wasn't the boldest politician in the world, but he risked something by embracing teacher testing in Arkansas and an end to "welfare as we know it." And he stuck with those stands, trying to persuade the unpersuaded, until something came of them. Al Gore had the guts to break with his party and vote in favor of the first Gulf War--showing foresight and sound judgment that Kerry (and Clinton, for that matter) did not match.

Name an issue on which Kerry has taken this sort of career-threatening risk. True, he was an early supporter of the Reagan-era Gramm-Rudman-Hollings budget-balancing law. But since even Edward Kennedy supported Gramm-Rudman, there are limits to how many heresy points Kerry gets for it. Kerry's supporters occasionally offer his vote for welfare reform as evidence of courage--but supporting welfare reform wasn't a risky vote for a politician with national aspirations. It was the only safe vote. Nor was Kerry a significant presence in the welfare reform debate.

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