The trouble with Kerry.

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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.

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.

A more telling and troubling episode is Kerry's speech expressing doubts on affirmative action. The year was 1992, a time when Democrats could expect lots of favorable press for doing heretical things like expressing doubts about affirmative action. (Those were the days!) Kerry had announced a grand initiative on race, including "a promised series" of speeches, the first of which was delivered at Yale. Kerry's heresy was carefully cushioned, however. He felt the pain of whites resentful of reverse discrimination. He noted that "affirmative action has kept American thinking in racial terms." But for him these thoughts had no policy consequences--Kerry didn't call for an eventual phase-out of affirmative action, for example, or a shift to affirmative action based on class rather than race. He didn't want to end it, and he didn't want to mend it either. Instead, within a few paragraphs he safely reaffirmed his support. Then he backed off even his theoretical doubts after the first critical reaction (and after Bill Clinton had  passed over him in choosing his running mate). The race initiative was shelved. (See also this site--search for "Yale.")

This is one reason the oft-told story of Kerry protesting the Vietnam War by throwing someone else's medals away resonates uncomfortably. Kerry wasn't willing to take the risk of parting with his own medals. They might come in handy some day! Even in his moment of maximum political bravado he was cautious.

3. Yep. No vision: Clinton developed his "Third Way" views over the course of decades. You could find them mushy or disagree with them but they were his own. What's Kerry's inspiring philosophy? If he had such a thing, one suspects, he wouldn't have campaigned by copying a CD-ROM of consultant Bob Shrum's old speeches into his hard drive. Even Shrum's shopworn memes--"I'll ... take on the powerful interests that stand in your way" etc.--don't really amount to a vision, as opposed to an attitude.

Perhaps Kerry can obtain a vision on the political black market in the months between now and the Democratic convention. But even if he does, will he be able to sell it? This brings us to ...

4. No fallback salesmanship: Successful modern presidents have one thing in common: a good pitch-man's basic rapport with mainstream voters. Reagan had it. Clinton had it. By this I mean that if Clinton or Reagan called the networks to cover an Oval Office speech, or if they addressed the Congress, the voters would at least give them a hearing--not necessarily buy what they were selling, but come to it with minds that were persuadable in a way that they had been persuaded before. That meant that when Reagan and Clinton got into trouble, as all presidents do--Reagan with Iran-Contra and Clinton with Monica--they were able to reboot, give some big speeches, and start to get out of trouble.

Sometimes a president's initial rapport with the public disappears--as Jimmy Carter's arguably had by the time of his "malaise" speech, or certainly by the end of his term. But Kerry would, I think, be in the uniquely precarious position of starting his term with no particular rapport. (Contrast with John Edwards--now there's a guy who could talk his way back from a 40 percent approval rating.)

I admit, I'm allergic to Kerry. Something in the vibration of that deep, pompous tone he adopts--the lugubrious, narcissistic fake gravity--grates on me. Others, bizarrely, say they don't have this problem. But few would argue that Kerry has formed a special bond with any large group of voters other than veterans. If he wins it's likely to be because voters see him as an acceptable alternative to an unacceptable incumbent, not because he's inspired them. It doesn't help that Kerry has a tendency to play the voters for fools--letting them think he's Irish (when he's not) or letting them think he's cleaner, in the campaign contribution department, than he really is (e.g., saying he takes no PAC money but accepting unlimited "soft money" contributions to his Citizen Soldier Fund).

Or letting them think he gave up his own medals. ....

All this means is that when President Kerry gets into trouble--when his first big proposals stall in Congress, when malaise or scandal arrives--he won't necessarily have the ability to go to the public and dig himself out. He'll be through, over.

Jimmy Carter took several years to reach that point. But Carter came into office as a highly effective salesman. It's not inconceivable, I think, that Kerry could turn into a Carter after several months. (Imagine his 1992 race initiative played out on a national stage.) In a parliamentary system, where a no-confidence vote can quickly produce a new government, this might not be such a disturbing prospect. But we have fixed presidential terms. Four years is a long time.

Links to some Kerry-related items in earlier editions of kausfiles:

"Hum-Shrum" (posted January 24, 2004)  The reason Kerry seems to be delivering Al Gore's speeches from 2000.

"Kerryphobia Korner: He's on His Side" (January 25, 2004)  A link-rich summary of ... skeptical Kerry analysis from left and right.

"Kerry Caught in Damage Control Lie" (February 1, 2004)  Kerry's fibbing about fundraising and more. ...