The Composite Candidate

Dispatches from Campaign 2004.
July 30 2004 1:49 AM

The Composite Candidate

Eight losers helped John Kerry write his acceptance speech.

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BOSTON—The early portions of John Kerry's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president of the United States resembled a typical Kerry for President campaign event. It was variety hour, with Kerry as emcee, introducing and thanking his special guests: his running mate, John Edwards; his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry; his children and stepchildren, Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry and Andre, Chris, and John Heinz; and of course Max Cleland and Kerry's Vietnam "band of brothers." In a new twist, Kerry also took a moment to thank each of his primary opponents by name—Carol Moseley Braun, Wesley Clark, Howard Dean, Dick Gephardt, Bob Graham, Dennis Kucinich, Joe Lieberman, and Al Sharpton. He thanked them for "teaching me and testing me—but mostly, we say thank you for standing up for our country and for giving us the unity to move America forward." But Kerry forgot to thank them for one other thing: writing his acceptance speech.

When he began his run for the presidency, Kerry possessed the biography, the résumé, the presence, and even the height required for a successful campaign. But initially he struggled to provide a compelling rationale, beyond those assets, for why he should assume the highest office in the land. Sure, he kind of looked like a president, and yes, he seemed to think he deserved it, but that wasn't enough to convince voters in 2003. Later, the rise of Howard Dean and John Edwards sharpened Kerry as a candidate—perhaps because he becomes more focused on deadline, but also because he co-opted their messages, sometimes verbatim.

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Kerry turned himself into the Democratic composite candidate, and with the addition of his biography, the one component no other candidate could borrow, he steamrolled the field. So, it was appropriate for him to thank the eight candidates who, in large or small part, provided the content that catapulted Kerry to the nomination and that now, he hopes, will carry him to the presidency.

To be fair, there were healthy chunks of Kerry's message from the primaries in the address. His line that, after Vietnam, "every day is extra" was used in an Iowa TV commercial that helped power him to his surprise victory in the caucuses there. Kerry didn't talk a lot about cutting middle-class taxes during the primaries, but his message that Howard Dean was going to raise taxes on the middle class helped spike Dean's candidacy. The attacks on outsourcing and corporate welfare were familiar to anyone who's watched Kerry campaign, and so was the sense of entitlement—or for those who want to view it charitably, destiny—that came across when he told Americans that as a child in a Colorado hospital, "I was born in the West Wing."

But Kerry also sounded a lot like his running mate, John Edwards. He talked to voters directly about their struggles to pay the bills: "You know what's happening. Your premiums, your co-payments, your deductibles have all gone through the roof." He mentioned the rise in the number of families living in poverty, a pet Edwards issue. His "we're the optimists" line was pure Edwards, and when he noted, "I don't want to claim that God is on our side. As Abraham Lincoln told us, I want to pray humbly that we are on God's side," he was pilfering the quote from the guy he chose for the ticket, who used it during their final primary debate.

Kerry sprinkled some of the best stuff from the rest of the field into the speech, too. Dean loved to attack Republicans for trying to appropriate the American flag for their own private use, when in fact it was the flag of all Americans, even—gasp—Democrats. Tonight, Kerry added a similar riff to his repertoire. He also adapted Dean's line about a president's most solemn duty being to tell the truth before taking a nation to war, when he promised to "be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war." There was also a dash of Wesley Clark's "new patriotism," Clark's affirmation of dissent as patriotism's highest form, when Kerry said, "We are here to affirm that when Americans stand up and speak their minds and say America can do better, that is not a challenge to patriotism; it is the heart and soul of patriotism." Clark also had a riff about family values that Kerry adapted tonight, saying, "It is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."

And, could it be? Was that a tiny drop of Bob Graham I heard when Kerry criticized America's dependence on the Saudi royal family for oil? The speech even contained a hint of Carol Moseley Braun, who liked to say, "It doesn't matter if you came to this country on the Mayflower or a slave ship, through Ellis Island or across the Rio Grande, we're all in the same boat now." What kind of America did Kerry say he wanted to lead? "An America where we are all in the same boat." There were only the tiniest hints, if any at all, of the rhetoric of Gephardt, Kucinich, Lieberman, or Sharpton that I could discern (though I feared before the speech began that its delivery would be pure Joementum), but that was for the best. There's no use burglarizing the poorest houses in your neighborhood.

Kerry shouldn't be criticized for adopting his competitors' rhetoric, especially now that the race is long over. Good politicians borrow, after all, while great politicians steal. And the candidate of a unified party might was well be the sum of all its candidates.

There are two questions, though, about Kerry's use of this political strategy. For one, there's a limit to how much longer he can use it. The zeal of the Democrats to retake the White House grants Kerry a fair amount of leeway to co-opt Bush's message and appeal to the center for the next three months, but he can't exactly get up and declare himself the candidate of compassionate conservatism. (Or can he?)

Perhaps more important is the extent to which Kerry's remarkable ability to be all things to all Democrats has convinced nearly every faction of the party, from paleoliberals to New Democrats, that he is their candidate. Should Kerry actually take office in January, won't his grand coalition splinter once he starts disappointing certain elements within it? My guess is yes, and that Kerry doesn't particularly care at the moment. It's a problem he'd be happy to grapple with for four more years.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.