WOULD JOHN KERRY have been better off not winning the Democratic presidential nomination so easily and so quickly? It's not an entirely idle or silly question. And the reason is that Kerry has emerged from the primaries with his candidacy and his record largely unchallenged. He hasn't been seriously vetted by the press. His image is undefined. All the public knows is he's been winning primaries and once served in Vietnam. Now, President Bush's reelection campaign will have a shot at defining Kerry.
Democratic national chairman Terry McAuliffe got his wish: an early nominee who didn't suffer a beating in primaries that dragged on for months. That would normally be a good thing, a split in the party and bitter feelings having been avoided. But something unusual happened in this year's primaries. Kerry wasn't attacked by his opponents. He was treated respectfully while the entire field of Democratic presidential candidates focused fire on President Bush instead. Kerry wasn't forced to defend himself--and thus toughen himself for the kind of criticism he'll get now. Nor did he flesh out his political persona.
Imagine how it might have worked if the important primaries hadn't been compacted into six weeks (at McAuliffe's insistence): Kerry would have won in Iowa and New Hampshire anyway, then probably picked up a victory or two or three every Tuesday or every other Tuesday right through to early June. True, he might have faltered. And sure, he'd have lost to John Edwards in a few Southern states, though as it was he whipped Edwards in Georgia, Virginia, and Tennessee. But it's obvious now that Edwards didn't have the message or the moxie to knock Kerry off. And the story of Kerry winning would--might, anyway--been extended for another three months. The effort by Bush to define him unfavorably would have been delayed and then cramped into a period of weeks before the Democratic convention in late July.
Of course, McAuliffe had no way of knowing the primaries would be such a breeze for Kerry and such a positive experience. So McAuliffe can be excused. Nonetheless, Kerry is now faced with enduring nearly five months as the Democratic nominee without weekly primary victories to dominate the press coverage. And the media and the Bushies suddenly have the same agenda: fill in the blanks about Kerry. This might have happened with a longer primary season anyway, but now there's more time for scrutiny.
Naturally, reporters won't want to be seen as running dogs for the Bush campaign. But can they avoid looking into Kerry's national security record, which will be a target of Bush TV ads and Republican attacks? No, because they've given Kerry a fairly free ride so far. Can they skip over Kerry's antiwar activities after he returned from duty in Vietnam? Probably not. Can they ignore his position(s) on cultural issues? I doubt it. This process could be prolonged and all the more painful with the convention so far off. But who knows? Kerry may zip through the five-month political gauntlet unscathed. In politics, what goes up doesn't always come down.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.