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Saving John Kerry

The long knives are out for the failed Democratic presidential candidate. He deserves better.

11:00 PM, Nov 11, 2004 • By JONATHAN V. LAST
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SO IT'S COME TO THIS: I'm John Kerry's last defender.

Two pieces of conventional wisdom emerged from last week's election. (1) Republicans owe their victory to anti-gay marriage initiatives and a massive values divide; and (2) John Kerry was a lousy candidate. Both are wrong.

David Brooks has fairly dispensed with the first trope, I'll tackle the second.

Writing in the Progressive, Matthew Rothschild complains that Kerry "never could give a decent speech." Since November 3, other Democrats have seconded this notion, and more. In Salon, Farhad Manjoo called Kerry "a pretty poor candidate;" Alexandra Pelosi went one further, pronouncing him "a terrible candidate." Mark Halperin laid nearly all of the blame for Tuesday's loss at Kerry's feet, saying, "John Kerry had a lot of problems too. . . . the Kerry campaign, with a bad candidate, a worse candidate, was not good enough to win."

Martin Peretz has recently written an entire ode to his dislike of Kerry.

And even before the election, people like Mickey Kaus and Noam Scheiber dumped on him from the beginning of his candidacy until almost the very end. This caterwauling is silly and unfair to John Kerry.

Did John Kerry run a poor campaign? Yes. Kerry never articulated where he stood on Iraq or, more importantly, how--exactly--he would be tougher than Bush in the war on terror. Every other issue--from taxes to gay marriage--is frosting. Had Kerry emulated John McCain's handling of his Vietnam record, taken a single position on Iraq, and come up with a single, detailed plan for combating terrorism, he might well have won.

Was Kerry a bad candidate? No. I have to assume that many of these critics never actually followed the candidate around, because close-up, Kerry was a pretty good candidate. I saw Kerry blow away crowds in New Hampshire. He gave a very good convention speech. He was excellent in the first presidential debate (but for the "global test" line, which haunted him afterwards). His day-to-day performance on the stump was also very fine--I saw him handle tough questions from voters with aplomb; and when he was interacting with a crowd, his rich and haughty caricature disappeared completely.

And let's not forget his résumé: Volunteered for service in Vietnam, saw combat, served as a prosecutor and then for two decades as a United States senator. In many ways, Kerry was a better candidate than Bush.

Was there a better Democrat in the field? Maybe. Dick Gephardt would have been a formidable opponent for President Bush--and perhaps a better candidate than Kerry. But he's about it. Joe Lieberman had a better chance of winning the Republican nomination. Howard Dean would have been an unmitigated disaster. Ditto the not-ready-for-prime-time Wesley Clark, and the oddball Sharpton/Kucinich show.

And how about that John Edwards? If his performance as a vice presidential candidate is any indication, he might have been as bad for the Democrats as Dean. Edwards's only electoral victory came in his 1998 Senate race against a 70-year-old first-term senator. Then he lost every presidential primary save South Carolina, delivered a disappointing convention speech, was beaten in the vice presidential debate, and was an ineffective campaigner for Kerry down the stretch. His supposed strength was that he could connect with Southerners, but forget carrying his home state: Edwards couldn't even carry his home precinct. Never has so large a reputation been created by so little actual success.

Did Kerry do anything to damage his party structurally? No. In fact, he did quite the opposite. At a time when all of the cultural tension was pulling Democrats towards the lefty fringe, Kerry, for the most part, resisted. A Howard Dean-style campaign--based on isolationism and pacifism--would have been truly disastrous for Democrats and might have realigned American politics for a generation.

Granted, Kerry didn't help the party as much as he could have by jettisoning the Michael Moore wing. Had he done so, he would have done for Democrats what George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole did for Republicans in the '90s by throwing Pat Buchanan overboard.