"Do you consider yourself a liberal?"
Senator John Kerry gently winces, as if to say, "OK, here we go." He is sitting in an anteroom behind a hearing room where the Senate Finance Committee, on which he serves, is approving a supersized tax cut he opposes. As the Democrats are absorbing their most significant legislative loss in decades, a disappointed but wistful Kerry–"I wish we were defining this thing better"–is whiling away time between votes on amendments, talking to a reporter about his positions, his past, his personality. Even the poems he writes.
This is what he must do, for the junior senator from Massachusetts, the Vietnam-War-hero-turned-Vietnam-War-opponent, who contemplated chasing the presidency in 2000 and who has twice been considered for veep, is again doing White House recon. He has become a regular on the Sunday-show circuit, a leader in the Democratic charge–what exists of it–against President Bush. He threatened to filibuster Bush's plan to drill for oil in the Alaska wilderness. He's speaking to Democratic faithful at party functions across the country. With his party bully-pulpit-less, Kerry is one of a dozen or so Dems vying to shape its response to Bush and shape a presidential bid.
The field of yearners is crowded. Al Gore is pondering. Senator Joe Lieberman dutifully awaits the outcome of those deliberations. Senator Tom Daschle's ascent to majority leader has enhanced his standing as a possible candidate. House minority leader Dick Gephardt and Senator Joe Biden have for years been longing to take another stab. Senator John Edwards, a buzz-generating freshman from North Carolina, and a few Democratic governors are eyeing the race. And the primary contest that emerges will establish where the party rests on that continuum that runs between traditional progressivism and neolib New Democratism. It's too soon to discern the contours of the fight, but with the early birds pecking away, serious contenders have to start flapping their wings. Which means Kerry has to begin defining both John Kerry and his party.
So a simple question: Is he a liberal? "Not really, no," he says. He pegs himself a "moderate," adding, "labels are too simple, particularly if you try to be thoughtful." He notes that he co-sponsored the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings balanced-budget legislation of the 1980s, voted for welfare reform and has been an ardent free-trader. That is, Kerry portrays himself as a so-called New Democrat, without using the term. But then he says he has fought for public housing. He favors abortion rights, legislation banning the replacement of striking workers and public financing of political campaigns. He does not accept PAC money; he opposes the death penalty. Environmentalists hail him as a stalwart ally. And Kerry points out: "I've taken on the Establishment–to some degree–on things like Iran/contra, drugs and the CIA, and BCCI," a crooked, politically wired bank. "Many people," he observes, "may want to characterize" him as a liberal. "And that's fine…. I don't run away from anything." Kerry quotes French writer André Gide: "Don't try to understand me too quickly." The line reflects a passion of his: not fitting into a box. Kerry can switch from crusading, reformist liberal to New Democrat and back again. As he seeks the White House and attempts to position and lead his party, will this be a talent to tap or a trait to overcome?