Jewish World Review May 4, 2004 / 13 Iyar, 5764
John H. Fund
Buyer's Remorse: Dems start to worry that Kerry can't win
It's six months until the election, and Democrats are already having buyer's remorse. The Bush campaign "is kicking Kerry's ass every damn day," one prominent Democratic operative told the Washington Post last week. "Kerry hasn't owned one day in the news yet. Not one day!"
Some liberals are so frantic that they want to pull the plug. Village Voice columnist James Ridgeway says prominent Democrats should "sit down with the rich and arrogant presumptive nominee and try to persuade him to take a hike" and withdraw. Call that the Torricelli option, after the former New Jersey senator who was muscled out of the race by party elders.
That's not going to happen. First, John Forbes Kerry has wanted to be president ever since he hung around the Kennedy family compound as a teenager. He's not going to let any of the same pooh-bahs who only last December wrote him off as a primary contender drive him from the race now. Second, Mr. Kerry's convention delegates are loyal to him and not easily transferable. There was similar grumbling about dumping Bill Clinton in the summer of 1992 when he was running third in polls behind both George Bush and Ross Perot. Nothing came of it.
But that doesn't mean that the worries about John Kerry's electability are going away. Time magazine columnist Joe Klein says Mr. Kerry is "engulfed by the sort of people Howard Dean railed against: timid congressional Democratic staff members and some of the old Clinton crowd. . . . Kerry's may be the most sclerotic presidential campaign since Bob Dole's." Ouch.
Complaints about Mr. Kerry extend beyond his staff. John Weaver, who was strategist for John McCain's 2000 presidential campaign before he became a Democrat, calls Mr. Kerry's TV skills "abysmal. . . . I don't know if it's a stream of consciousness or stream of unconsciousness." MSNBC's Chris Matthews, who has lavished airtime on Mr. Kerry, is nonetheless frustrated with his elliptical speech patterns. "There's no such thing as a trick question with Kerry, because he won't answer it," he sighs. "We'll be having conversations afterward, and it's hard to get to him even then."
The few times that Mr. Kerry decides to abandon his nuanced reserve and programmed responses he can become argumentative and hectoring. ABC's Charlie Gibson asked him last Monday on "Good Morning America" to reconcile his inconsistent stories about whether he had flung his medals or merely his combat ribbons over the White House fence during a 1971 antiwar protest . After Mr. Gibson pointed out that he had covered the demonstration and had personally seen Mr. Kerry throwing medals away, the candidate replied: "Charlie, Charlie, you're wrong! That is not what happened. I threw my ribbons across. And all you have to do is go back and find the file footage." He then lapsed into incoherence.
Vaughn Ververs, the editor of the political newsletter Hotline, says Mr. Kerry's weak performances have led to "a good deal of hand-wringing among Democrats over the perception that one of Kerry's biggest strengths--his military service--seems to have become a liability."
One reason is that he began his presidential race talking far too much about Vietnam. My colleague James Taranto points out that in a December 2002 interview with NBC's Tim Russert, Mr. Kerry managed to work Vietnam into an answer about the death penalty. Robert Sam Anson, a Kerry friend who first met him during that same antiwar protest at which Mr. Kerry burst onto the national scene in 1971, concludes that Mr. Kerry is suffering from a desire to "explain away, deny, revise, trim or flat-out lie about all past events, beliefs and statements that got you the Democratic nomination in the first place. It happened to another friend of mine in 1972. His name was George McGovern. . . . See what happens when you ignore what Mother said about fibbing? No one's saying that Mr. Kerry's cooked. But McGovern parallels give him a toasted look he didn't get skiing in Sun Valley."
Liberals know they are stuck with Mr. Kerry, but that's not preventing them from worrying about his tendency to appear to take both sides of an issue. The irony is that Mr. Kerry has wanted the White House so badly, and for so long, that he has become almost a caricature of an opportunistic, programmed candidate. The resulting image turns off many voters who sense that not much is motivating him beyond blind ambition. For example, many voters may not feel comfortable with Mr. Bush's religious impulses and motivations, but they highlight the image he conveys of a sincere, committed leader.
It is traditional for party activists to grumble about their prospective nominee between the time he wraps up the primaries and when he is actually nominated. But the doubts about Mr. Kerry go beyond campaign kvetching. At times, they seem to verge on quiet panic.
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©2001, John H. Fund