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Can Kerry Get Real? | The Nation

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Can Kerry Get Real?

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If a presidential candidate is truly the Real Deal, does he have to repeatedly pronounce himself the Real Deal?

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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That's the dilemma confronting Senator John Forbes Kerry, who at the start of the pre-primary season was tagged the front-runner among the Democratic contenders. On paper, he looked real. He's a Vietnam War hero who protested that war. He's mostly in sync with Democratic primary voters; he's a liberal who has campaigned fiercely against Bush's environmental rollbacks and his tilted-toward-the-rich tax cuts (though he's also a free trader and once raised questions about affirmative action, while supporting it). He's devoted years of thought and action to foreign policy, and in decades past has courageously crusaded against national security corruption, including the CIA's connection to contra supporters involved with drug dealing. He's a skilled fundraiser (who has long urged campaign finance reform). He is tall, has good hair and presidential initials. But Howard Dean, a nobody governor from Vermont, zoomed past him in the pre-voting indicators: money, poll results, volunteers and buzz. Consequently, much of the media attention devoted to Kerry has focused on the question, What went wrong? The infighting within his bloated campaign attracted as much, if not more, ink and airtime than his policy ideas. And the one policy move that earned notice has been a drag on his campaign. His vote last year to grant George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq--which Kerry cast after raising objections to Bush's unilateralism--was difficult for him to explain succinctly and alienated him from antiwar Democrats who might otherwise have been his natural base. Kerry was the Default Democrat--good credentials, a central-casting nominee--but Dean's passion, evidenced by his antiwar message, trumped Kerry's less showy assets--and Representative Dick Gephardt's passionate embrace of labor issues did the same in the key state of Iowa.

Which brings us--or John Kerry--to the Real Deal. In the aftermath of a late-in-the-game staff shake-up, Kerry began pitching himself as the "Real Deal" candidate who could undo Bush's "raw deal," which favors "powerful interests." So when the Senate passed the Medicare bill, Kerry complained, "By caving in to the special interests, the Senate has given our seniors a raw deal." He called for a "a real world, affordable" prescription drug benefit that would be "a real deal for American seniors." In New Hampshire, he unveiled a "Real Deal" agenda he would move to enact in the first 100 days of a Kerry presidency. That list includes reinstating a five-year ban on lobbying for ex-government officials; offering a "realistic" plan that makes healthcare a right for every American; reversing Bush's assault on the environment; requiring mandatory national service for high school kids; repealing the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy; renouncing Bush's policy of pre-emptive war. Kerry promoted his grand scheme with the "Real Deal" bus tour and pledged to make "the Real Deal a reality."

The problem: Kerry is trying too hard to be "real" (riding a motorcycle on to Jay Leno's Tonight set; shooting at pheasants in Iowa). It's an obvious reaction to the criticism that Kerry, not known for exciting the voters, has yet to present an inspiring message or persona to fire up grassroots Democrats (particularly those in New Hampshire, right next door to his home state of Massachusetts). And his Real Deal smacks of the handiwork of Bob Shrum, the master political consultant/guru who often encourages his candidates--like Al Gore in 2000--to push us-versus-them themes. Although Kerry has adopted us-against-them stands over the years, he has not developed a reputation as a populist. Reaching for that mantle now seems, well, a reach--more a calculation than an affirmation.

When he was the presumed leader of the pack, Kerry failed to harness the mad-as-hell energy of many Democrats--fueled in large part by Bush's adventuring in Iraq. Now he's belatedly trying to collect some of it with a stab at populism. But long ago he blew a chance by straddling the war issue--opposing going to war without a multilateral coalition yet empowering Bush to do so. Kerry's number-one credential was foreign policy experience and gravitas, yet he ended up with a less-than-clear message on the main issue for many Democrats. "Kerry is deeply antiwar," says a longtime friend. "That's gotten buried. He is the last person who would involve us in a foreign conflict without exhausting every remedy. He knows we were lied to about the Iraq war. He could make the case and say, in his cold and steely manner, 'There were lies.' I don't know why he ain't saying that. Instead, his campaign has overplayed the whole Vietnam thing. In previous campaigns, it was always present as a response, not an initiative. Now it's hackneyed. It's been very, very, very frustrating."

In some respects, Kerry has been running a campaign more suitable for re-electing an incumbent senator: Look at my résumé, look at my record, look at my advisers. But as Ralph Whitehead, professor of public service at the University of Massachusetts, observes, "If you want to sell a vacuum cleaner, you don't talk about its virtue, you demonstrate it. And Kerry has not yet demonstrated his assets. He talks about them. On the other hand, with his strong position against the war, Dean has led."

Will getting "real" put Kerry back in the hunt? He's lost time and faces severe obstacles in New Hampshire, a must-win state for him. "What does he have there?" asks a senior labor official who has worked with Kerry in the past. "He's a free-trade guy, so he doesn't have labor. He can't get the teachers, because Dean is so strong in criticizing the No Child Left Behind Act. And he whiffed on the war. So he cannot offer foreign policy credentials and principled opposition to the mess in Iraq. What does he use for leverage against Dean?" And Kerry's latest strategy--despite decades of progressive leanings--is easy to dismiss as an eleventh-hour move. One veteran Democratic operative unaffiliated with any campaign says, "So now Kerry's campaign is the 'Real Deal'? What was it before? The Phony Deal?" But this strategist adds, "Kerry has always had trouble defining himself. Whatever message he has now, he has to stick with it. He can't afford another change. For Kerry, the Real Deal is the only deal he has left."

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