The Great Inoculator

The race for the Democratic presidential nomination is over and, for better or worse, it's John Kerry. The party faithful decided to play it safe; they put emotion aside and went for the man who was everyone's second or third choice. The buzzword of this political season, "electability," proved to have unmatched cachet among Democrats.

Howard Dean, the darling of the masses in the early going, was seen metaphorically as a bridge too far when things got serious. He was a perfect conduit for the anti-Bush, anti-war sentiment of the party's grassroots and the personification of their anger, but when it got down to cases, a majority of Democrats evidently concluded that actually nominating him would be taking an unacceptable chance in a must-win election. The volatile, unpredictable Dean, so the apparent reasoning went, would be too easy to caricature and too likely to self-destruct under the pressure of a general campaign. His plain speaking, initially a prized asset, came to be viewed, ironically, as a potentially crippling handicap. In the end, Democrats preferred someone who would play it closer to the vest; they preferred a traditional politician.

Still, Dean leaves a political legacy. He woke up a somnolent party, shook it out of its bipartisan lethargy, and gave it back its nerve. For that, Democrats owe him their thanks. In addition, the presumptive nominee and his prospective running mates are borrowing Dean's lines and copying his message; they're all Deaniacs now. It may just be rhetoric, but its refreshing. Dean lost, but in a way, he won.

Of course, the Democratic party's last-minute turn to Sen. Kerry was more than merely an expression of buyers' remorse toward Dr. Dean. If that were the case, the replacement frontrunner could just as easily have been Edwards or Clark or even Gephardt. Kerry's got something. It's not his passion; he's cerebral and low-key to a fault. Its not his speaking style; he's been known to put people to sleep on occasion. It's not his ideological commitment; he's been an inconstant liberal over the years. Two attributes recommend the Massachusetts senator to this year's victory-starved primary and caucus goers: his standing as a savvy political pro who knows his way around and won't be snookered by the GOP, and his heroic biography. Together, the two spell "winner" to Democrats.

The celebrated Kerry bio, in particular -- his status as a genuine, decorated war hero -- makes the senator the great inoculator for his party. The conventional wisdom (and it might just be correct this time) says that nominating Kerry immunizes the Democratic ticket from the soft-on-defense/unpatriotic virus Republicans like to release into the air at election time. Democratic voters have bet the farm on the proposition that whatever other characteristics their candidate might have, he must, in the era of terrorism, be invulnerable to charges of being weak on foreign policy. Kerry provides that necessary inoculation of red, white, and blue.

The nagging question that arises, however, is whether calculating Democrats may have outsmarted themselves by opting not for the man they necessarily truly believe in, but for the man they think other people will support in November. Over the coming weeks and months, John Kerry himself can do a lot to dispel the doubts by not galloping precipitantly to the dead center once his nomination is confirmed. His history reveals him to be a progressive, but a rather tepid progressive who sometimes flirts with the conservative policy positions of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council (DLC).

To be sure, Kerry was not the DLC's man this year; that was Joe Lieberman. But DLC spokesmen could barely contain themselves when the Massachusetts senator bested their bête noire, Howard Dean, in Iowa. High fives all around -- whether for Kerry winning or Dean losing is not entirely clear. There are other sources of doubt. Kerry is on record as having voted for the Iraq war resolution (though his rationale was nuanced), the USA PATRIOT Act (though he now attacks John Ashcroft), the Clinton welfare reform, telecommunications deregulation, and any number of job-killing free-trade agreements.

Equally disconcerting is Kerry's expressed admiration for the Clinton economic policies of the 1990s; he is basing his own employment program on Clintonomics and taking counsel from the former president's advisors, he says. The obvious reference point is the 20-plus million jobs created between 1993 and 2000. Kerry has evidently bought into the Democratic myth of a golden age for workers in the 1990s, avoiding the reality that the job creation of the Clinton years, while genuine, was basically a low-pay, low-benefit service-sector phenomenon that did nothing to halt the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs or the continuing decline of the American middle class.

Kerry also echoes Clinton when it comes to globalization. He refuses to renounce free trade, but suggests he will use the tax code against "Benedict Arnold" CEOs and companies that export American jobs. Those with long memories will recall that candidate Clinton promised something similar in 1992, but never followed through. As with other aspects of the Kerry economic approach, his sincerity on corporate tax loopholes will have to be taken on faith.

On the plus side of the ledger (from a progressive perspective), Kerry does come out of a liberal political milieu in Massachusetts, unlike the pure New Democrat Clinton, who, by contrast, emerged from a conservative southern tradition and brought an ingrained centrism with him to the White House. Evaluations of Kerry's Senate career illustrate the difference. The right-wing National Taxpayers Union criticizes him for being a big spender and says he voted wrong 82% of the time on tax issues. The progressive Americans for Democratic Action gives him a 92% liberal lifetime voting record, slightly ahead of Ted Kennedy at 90%. And the nonpartisan National Journal, in an analysis published last year, rated Kerry the least conservative of the several Democratic presidential candidates based on votes in Congress.

All in all, the Kerry record gives both reassurance and disquiet to those on the left. He's no populist, but neither is he a classic Clintonian triangulator. He's what used to be called a liberal before it became a bad word. Right now, that looks good to Democrats. Let's hope they didn't make their decision too soon.

Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.

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