Can Kerry Get Real?
Corn, David, The Nation
If a presidential candidate is truly the Real Deal, does he have to repeatedly pronounce himself the Real Deal?
That's the dilemma confronting Senator John Forbes Kerry, who at the start of the pre-primary season was tagged the front-runner among the Democratic contenders. On paper, he looked real. He's a Vietnam War hero who protested that war. He's mostly in sync with Democratic primary voters; he's a liberal who has campaigned fiercely against Bush's environmental rollbacks and his tilted-toward-the-rich tax cuts (though he's also a free trader and once raised questions about affirmative action, while supporting it). He's devoted years of thought and action to foreign policy, and in decades past has courageously crusaded against national security corruption, including the CIA's connection to contra supporters involved with drug dealing. He's a skilled fundraiser (who has long urged campaign finance reform). He is tall, has good hair and presidential initials. But Howard Dean, a nobody governor from Vermont, zoomed past him in the pre-voting indicators: money, poll results, volunteers and buzz. Consequently, much of the media attention devoted to Kerry has focused on the question, What went wrong? The infighting within his bloated campaign attracted as much, if not more, ink and airtime than his policy ideas. And the one policy move that earned notice has been a drag on his campaign. His vote last year to grant George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq--which Kerry cast after raising objections to Bush's unilateralism--was difficult for him to explain succinctly and alienated him from antiwar Democrats who might otherwise have been his natural base. Kerry was the Default Democrat--good credentials, a central-casting nominee--but Dean's passion, evidenced by his antiwar message, trumped Kerry's less showy assets--and Representative Dick Gephardt's passionate embrace of labor issues did the same in the key state of Iowa.
Which brings us--or John Kerry--to the Real Deal. In the aftermath of a late-in-the-game staff shake-up, Kerry began pitching himself as the "Real Deal" candidate who could undo Bush's "raw deal," which favors "powerful interests." So when the Senate passed the Medicare bill, Kerry complained, "By caving in to the special interests, the Senate has given our seniors a raw deal." He called for a "a real world, affordable" prescription drug benefit that would be "a real deal for American seniors." In New Hampshire, he unveiled a "Real Deal" agenda he would move to enact in the first 100 days of a Kerry presidency. That list includes reinstating a five-year ban on lobbying for ex-government officials; offering a "realistic" plan that makes healthcare a right for every American; reversing Bush's assault on the environment; requiring mandatory national service for high school kids; repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; renouncing Bush's policy of pre-emptive war. Kerry promoted his grand scheme with the "Real Deal" bus tour and pledged to make "the Real Deal a reality."
The problem: Kerry is trying too hard to be "real" (riding a motorcycle on to Jay Leno's Tonight set; shooting at pheasants in Iowa). It's an obvious reaction to the criticism that Kerry, not known for exciting the voters, has yet to present an inspiring message or persona to fire up grassroots Democrats (particularly those in New Hampshire, right next door to his home state of Massachusetts). …