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Kerry and the Possibility of Greatness

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.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on July 25, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

I largely agree with this perspective; what i would add is that Kerry couldn't have pulled this off in 2000 or in 1992. For Kerry's virtues to offer the potential of a better America, they need to be seen in relief against george bush: careful, where bush is careless; informed, where bush is ignorant; realistic, where bush is utopian; open-minded, where bush is close-minded.

Posted by: howard | Jul 25, 2004 1:15:41 PM

Let us not gild the lily. It is necessary, and it is sufficient, for Mr. Kerry to be an anti-Republican. He will not be chartered or empowered to attack--or even to candidly identify--the real problem. The point, and the most that can be accomplished, is to gain a little breathing space.

The time for greatness will come when a new house is being built, to replace the one that the Republican Party is currently burning to the ground, in the hope of claiming sole possession of the last fleck of ash.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit | Jul 25, 2004 6:38:57 PM

Howard, I'd have to say I agree with you. But Frank, what would you saw was "the real problem"?

Posted by: Kyle | Jul 26, 2004 12:11:47 AM

The real problem is that a totalitarian propaganda machine has spent a generation methodically turning half of the American people into a ravening lynch mob. When you have once promised a group of people that you will place them above the law, you cannot later burst their bubble. When once you have intoxicated them with dreams of absolute power, you cannot stand them down; you cannot wake them up from their dream, whether gently or rudely, and tell them that they must resume their old, familiar, grinding existence. They simply won't hear of it.

Posted by: Frank Wilhoit | Jul 28, 2004 9:13:30 PM

A brief note: this analysis is more than a little unfair to Red Sox broadcasters, or at least the radio crew. I've heard Trupiano in particular be absolutely brutal in slagging the team in games (all too frequent this year) where defensive bungles have cost them a lead: "They're going nowhere, absolutely nowhere, if they can't do better than this." And he's sometimes criticized by the fans for excessive boosterism...

Posted by: Charles Dodgson | Jul 29, 2004 11:21:42 PM

I have two feelings about Kerry. His integrity is as solid as any man's could be, so he has, at the least, a good chance of restoring a respect to the office that has been missing for many years.

The other thing is more a premonition. I feel we've blundered badly in the Middle East. Iraq's factions are mostly united to expel us, the occupiers, with the Kurds on the outs, aligned with Israel. Our investigative commissions keep focusing on fighting yesterday's threats instead of tomorrow's (see Amitai Etzioni on this)and I suspect we will see tragedies unfold in the next few months and years.

The country also seems, by my history, more polarized than any time since 1860. Lincoln had to preside over great loss and tragedy and I just sense Kerry may as well, for one or both of these reasons.

I continue to hope my worry is childish, rooted in something silly like his Lincolnesque height. There's no way to debate a premonition, I know, but my point is that I suspect Kerry has the integrity and gravitas to hold the country together through whatever trials are ahead. Which certainly would make him a great one if that came to pass.

Posted by: Kevin Hayden | Aug 2, 2004 9:57:57 PM

Kevin,

Interesting comparison. In 1864 the anti-war Democrats figured they'd found the perfect foil for Lincoln in George McClellan, the highly decorated war hero who was prone to pomposity and inflated self-regard. That year the Dems promised to end the highly unpopular war.

The Republicans' Lincoln was accused of miring the the country in an endless war and not having an exit strategy. Democrats said Lincoln was rolling back constitutional rights, misleading the public about the cost of the war, employing barbaric methods against an enemy that was only trying to defend its homeland against occupation, and waging war for immoral and racist purposes. It was common for opponents to say Lincoln was unfit for command because he had not served in the Mexican War.

McClellan looked poised to beat the hapless and simpleminded Lincoln until Union victories began to pile up and voters decided they wanted to win the war not simply end it.

I believe McClellan won about three states.

Posted by: Murphy | Aug 3, 2004 11:41:44 AM

Murphy,

I think comparisons to another war are in order:

Forget WWII or Vietnam. The real comparison for an invasion of Iraq is the Spanish-American War, when an aimless U.S. presidency and a lazy media looked for redemption.

Total Casualties Compare to Spanish-American, Mexican and 1812 Conflicts

Back to the Spanish-American War of 1898?

Iraq's Historical Predecessor

Reality Check, This Is War (Iraq)

Iraq and the Spanish-American War:
A Comparison Study

Business of war / How much of the Iraq mission is about profit?

The Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and the Persian Gulf War can fairly be described as “discretionary” wars for the United States.

"When people ask me what I mean by stable government, I tell them 'money at six percent'." - General Leonard Wood, Military Governor of Cuba, 1900

RECONSTRUCTION OF IRAQ:A LESSON OF HISTORICAL PRECEDENTS
Critical Analysis

Murdoch helped start war on Iraq, says Turner

Posted by: Haven Perez | Aug 3, 2004 2:56:46 PM

here is an article exposing kerry.

deepthoughtswithtyler.com

Posted by: jeff | Aug 4, 2004 4:59:33 AM

john kerry could be hurt by questions about his military service

deepthoughtswithtyler.blogspot.com

Posted by: jeff | Aug 4, 2004 5:55:54 AM

Good point Haven,

Presidential Election of 1900
McKinley (R) -- 51.7%
Bryan (D) -- 45.5%

I guess there are some people who are still outraged by the Spanish American war but they're really not consequential are they?

Posted by: Murphy | Aug 4, 2004 9:51:38 AM

My own conviction is that Kerry has to start talking more about the oversight work he did in the Senate, and how that links to him being the kind of president who will take care of the details, or else he is going to continue to face attacks on the question of why he never talks about his Senate record. That will make a nice contrast to Bush, who people pretty clearly understand is the kind of guy who delegates everything, to our country's detriment.

Posted by: Patience | Aug 6, 2004 3:13:04 PM

I've heard there was a standing joke in the Clinton White House about any legislative strategy that begain with "and then we'll peel off a few moderate Republicans in the House." Because it never worked. In 1993, many of the moderate Republicans were interested in health care reforms, but once the word got out to put politics over policy, there were no more compromises and party loyalty was virtually complete. I can't think of any reason why it would be different with Kerry in the White House.

Posted by: Drew | Sep 3, 2004 11:51:39 AM

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Posted by: Mary | Jan 18, 2005 1:52:56 PM

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