Karl Rove and Republican strategists have been having a difficult time since the Iowa caucuses. Where it once seemed as if Howard Dean would sail through the primaries and easily gain the Democratic nomination, John Kerry has emerged as the front-runner with commanding victories in the opening battleground states. Rove and company were licking their chops when on December 26th, Dean told a New Hampshire reporter that he’d prefer to wait until Osama bin Laden be found guilty by trial before he would pronounce the terrorist’s guilt. Besides al Qaeda, it’s pretty tough to imagine an organization or constituency which might embrace this claim from card-carrying members of the ACLU to the Muslim “brothers” he has attacked in Riyadh, each regard OBL as the malevolent criminal he truly is.
And Dean is a firebrand, someone who is too easily rattled when even a hint of adversity sets in-and I’m not even referring to that bizarre scream that every comedian has already derided. Dean is showing glaring signs of extreme stress and of losing self-control. This was most recently demonstrated by his firing of Joe Trippi, the loyal campaign manager who devoted over a year of his life to raising millions and lifted the ex-Governor’s candidacy from obscurity to the top of preliminary polls.
For the Bush ’04 camp, the prospects of confronting the strident former governor were enticing and an altogether easier fight than facing John Kerry. Kerry just seems more presidential, that hard-to-define quality that combines respect in the eyes of world leaders, with a careful introspection to gauge the effect that American unilateralism might have worldwide. The Bay State Senator has made critical real-time adjustments to his campaign style-he’s cut down his stump speech and delivers it sounding less entitled and more humble. Kerry appears to be listening more to his audience, hanging around town hall meetings until he’s fielded every last question. And increasingly important among voters, particularly within a turbulent and dangerous world, Kerry’s military service suggests that he would carefully consider the full implications of sending American forces into conflicts abroad.
Kerry’s military record in Vietnam is noteworthy; before he even graduated from Yale in 1966, he enlisted in the Navy and was quickly commissioned as an officer in charge of a gunboat patrolling the dangerous waters of the Mekong Delta. Kerry stepped up when others chose not to, leaving behind the comfortable warmth of academia, good friends and a promising career. How many of us would even consider the modern-day analog: postponing our start-dates at McKinsey or Microsoft to enter Boot Camp and deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan instead?
While in Vietnam, Kerry’s boat and crew were involved in numerous firefights, during which the young lieutenant displayed enough poise under duress to keep his crew alive. His bravery, sometimes bordering on recklessness (perhaps chasing glory like the kind attained by JFK onboard PT-109), earned him the Bronze Star, a Silver Star for gallantry and his war wounds led to three Purple Hearts.
Kerry’s poignant reflections of the brutality of this senseless war are captured in Douglas Brinkley’s recent book, Tour of Duty: John Kerry and the Vietnam War. Kerry’s journal entries mention the anguish he feels upon learning the death of his college buddy, Dick Pershing, “…I just … cried-a pathetic and very empty kind of crying that turned into anger and bitterness. I have never felt so void of feeling before-so numb.” The blood-letting and wanton destruction he observed, first-hand, were formative experiences for the future Senator. On returning home, he and other veterans actively protested the Vietnam War, throwing their medals onto the Capitol steps in outright disgust for continued U.S. entanglement.
Because he had, “been there, done that,” one cannot so easily dismiss John Kerry’s outrage as the unchanneled passions of a disaffected youth.
His was a voice that deserved to be heard over the crowd.
Yet Kerry has numerous chinks in his armor that Republicans will be quick to exploit. His seeming inability to stick with a difficult issue and advance a bill through legislation is troublesome beyond any Super Bowl metaphor of being unable to “carry the football up-field.” In the past decade alone, each time he attacked liberal special interests like affirmative action, education reform and Social Security, John Kerry quickly backed down when opposition mounted or the issue fell off the political radar.
In 1998, he criticized the public school system as beset with a “bloated bureaucracy” and proposed radical measures like “ending tenure as we know it,” so that incompetent teachers could be fired more easily.
Besides whether taking on teachers’ unions, always a staunch Democratic support base, was politically unwise, Kerry’s failure to elevate this cause to the next level is far more disturbing. But when it comes to innovative ways to fix our public schools, it’s not as if Kerry took his ideas and packed them away for a rainy day. Far from it-a key plank in his current campaign platform is the hollow clich‚: “Stop Blaming and Start Supporting Public School Educators.” This is all to easy for him to say, as the richest man in the Senate who is married to the heiress of the Heinz Ketchup fortune, Kerry sent his own children to expensive private schools.
Kerry’s criticism of affirmative action dates as early as 1992, when he conceded that even though it had achieved many positive results, it has also fostered a “culture of dependency” and “actually engenders racism.”
When General Wesley Clark pressed him on the topic during the recent debates in South Carolina, Kerry contended that he had agreed with President Clinton and others at the time who wanted to “mend it, not end it.” Regardless of whether or not affirmative action helps disenfranchised populations gain equal footholds in education and professional circles, Kerry’s backpedaling and inconsistency is further evidence that he might buckle under political pressure.
John Kerry brings so many strengths to the Democratic ticket. He represents a centrist-liberal candidate who can intelligently engage President Bush on all the key domestic topics of the 2004 election: homeland security, mending healthcare, paying down the national debt and creating more jobs for Americans. Yet for all of the many assets he brings to the debate, an overwhelming question remains unanswered: does John Kerry feel which way the winds of popular sentiment blow to make each and every move?