As a political analyst, Tom Oliphant is the equivalent of a Red Sox broadcaster, always certain that his own homeboys are going all the way this year, not quite finding the distance. It's got its limits as analysis. But on the subject of just those New England politicians who float his bowtie, he is indispensable. I found his argument for the potential that John Kerry could be not just a non-Bush president but in fact a great one, in the current American Prospect, extraordinarily convincing. And this has really troubled me, because I thought I had a grasp of Kerry. I thought that after seven years spent observing a lot of Senators, sometimes in their public roles and sometimes in meetings of 2-3 Senators and some staff, I was correct in dismissing him. He hadn't been much of a presence, didn't seem to have figured out how to make his way in that absurd, entrepreneurial institution, didn't seem even to have a driving passion. I had a sense of him as sort of an incomplete person, unable to find much of a reason to be in public life except for his own sense of himself and a conviction that one can never be too careful. It was a view of him very similar to William Saletan's, expressed often in Slate.
And, I think, wrong. Or maybe right at the time, and for that context, but not right anymore. I still don't quite know how he did it, but this nominee -- despite going into January stuck in a pack of Dean alternatives -- won the nomination more smoothly than any non-incumbent in history, and has raised five times as much money as any Democrat in history: there is some real talent there. I'm certain that his marriage played a role here in centering him around a human purpose. Oliphant says as much.
Citing Ted Kennedy, Oliphant singles out Kerry's leadership, with McCain, of the mid-90s committee to investigate MIA's and POW's in Vietnam as an example of his discipline and skill. I agree with that. The POW commission was an amazing achievement, because it went straight at the most deeply held convictions of its key constituency. The people who demanded and won this commission, and who hung on its every word, believed or profoundly wanted to believe that their loved ones, 20 years later, were still waiting to be released from their Hanoi torture chambers. With McCain, Kerry managed a process that all but silenced this constituency, and even helped lead toward normalization of relations with Vietnam. My mistake was that I thought that achievement was an exception to the rule that Kerry was basically ineffectual. In reality, it was an achievement very much on a par with passing major legislation, and probably an achievement that has more to do with what a president must do well than any typical Senate credential. It was not an exception, just another way of doing things.
Oliphant also says the following of Kerry:
Kerry?s other, overarching political thought is that the election of a Democratic president this year would liberate an unknowable number of governance-minded Republicans from the iron grip of the GOP?s congressional leadership, no matter who is in the majority. In the House of Representatives especially, the party discipline Tom DeLay can invoke on President Bush?s behalf would almost by definition be less powerful under a President Kerry. On any given domestic issue, there would be 20 or more Republicans available with the proper enticements and atmosphere. For those to the left of center who recall that JFK?s belief in 1960 was that the country could do better, not that it could be revolutionized, Kerry is the kind of person and politician I believe to be worth trusting for this grubby, central task of coalition building.
This has been my main argument in the set of posts I've written in the category, "The 1/21 project." Whichever party controls Congress, Kerry's only option is to work like hell to build working alliances with the dozen or more House members and the half-dozen Senators who might be able to take their own path. But this is the first that I have heard that understanding attributed to Kerry. If indeed he does understand this point, it would be a good idea for him to say it, strongly and persuasively. As important as it will be to build the coalitions that can win on issues like revamping the tax code, it is equally important that his natural allies understand what he is doing. I think those who excoriate Clinton for selling out liberal policies would feel a little differently if he had done more to convey to them just how limited his range of options was. Kerry likewise needs to show --whether on Thursday night or later -- that he understands that the path back to normalcy will be a long slog full of compromises, but that only from a position of normalcy can we begin to move forward on the things we want to change, like health care and income inequality.
Liberals are already poised to relive the dead predictable cycle of triumphalism and disappointment. The other day, I heard someone make the argument, "we need grass-roots groups in 2005 that can push Kerry, make him do the right thing, and occasionally even support him." I agree about the need, but would reverse the priorities.
As for the potential for greatness in Kerry, I can imagine it. The fact that he seems to understand how he has to govern is one indication; Oliphant has many others. Success in the presidency seems to elude prediction, because the requirements of the job are so different from other political offices as well as most non-political jobs. Given what I thought I knew about Kerry, I'm surprised to find myself voting for him not just as the anti-Bush, but with an enthusiasm about his ability to succeed.