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Defining John Kerry | The Nation

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Defining John Kerry

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Just as Kerry has subtly reconfigured his criticism of the war, forging a position that covers a wider swath of opinion, he has occasionally adopted stances that challenge traditional liberal views and that can be viewed as attempts to broaden his political reach. In a 1992 speech on urban policy, Kerry briefly cited problems with affirmative action, saying it had created "a reality of reverse discrimination that actually engenders racism" and calling it "inherently limited and divisive." He did declare his support for the program, while advocating greater spending for the urban poor, but he came across as a second-thoughts liberal sympathetic to critics of the program. Civil rights leaders blasted him; columnists wondered whether Kerry was angling to be Bill Clinton's neolib running mate. He spent weeks defending the two paragraphs. After this dust-up, one civil rights lobbyist recalls, "Kerry didn't continue banging that drum."

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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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Kerry's reluctance to be a traditional Democrat may have caused him difficulty in 1996. Running for a third term (in 1990 he had defeated a GOP millionaire), Kerry faced William Weld, the popular Republican frat-boy governor. And he appeared to be in trouble, as he emphasized his work on free trade and international affairs. "Rarely has an important political figure in [Massachusetts] engendered such passionless support," the Boston Globe reported. Weld led in some polls. "It was so tough to get Kerry to relax and be a Democrat," a Massachusetts consultant says. "He wanted to run a campaign of shrewd rethinking. He made the race harder than it had to be."

Organized labor came to his assistance. "We tried to explain to Kerry that Ted Kennedy [in a tough re-election two years prior] did well talking about education and healthcare--working-family issues," says Robert Haynes, the president of the state AFL-CIO. "And Kerry did come around to that sort of agenda." In one ad, Kerry featured locked-out union workers at Commonwealth Gas complaining about their lack of medical benefits. The unions toiled hard for Kerry--even though he opposed labor on NAFTA, fast-track trade authority and most-favored-nation status for China. ("We fight this battle with him on trade," says Haynes. "We agree on everything else.") The state teachers' union rallied members for Kerry. He won by eight points.

Less than two years later, Kerry's supporters at the teachers' union were aghast when, during the course of proposing a program of education reform, he called for ending teacher tenure. In a speech, Kerry attacked the school bureaucracy and "stultifying collective bargaining agreements" with teachers' unions. "This is how he paid us back," says a teachers' union official. "He leans more elitist than populist, and he tries to be ever-enigmatic. He defies people to clarify him as a traditional liberal. Makes you wonder where his convictions are." On education issues, Kerry has collaborated with the Democratic Leadership Council, the corporate-funded outfit that tries to tug the party to the right. "That's why it's accurate to say he's not a purebred Massachusetts liberal," notes Will Marshall, president of the DLC-affiliated Progressive Policy Institute.

Do Kerry's ideological diversions stem from conviction or calculation? A desire not to be typecast as a Massachusetts Democrat? (Remember Michael Dukakis?) His pollster Tom Kiley says, "He's always a little suspicious of liberal nostrums and is looking for other solutions." Another Massachusetts political consultant remarks, "He feels a desire to differentiate himself from Teddy Kennedy. That's been his struggle. He regards himself as a New Democrat, but he is seen as being a definer of the liberal wing of the party. But he's not like Bill Clinton, trying to reposition the party. It's more a matter of temperament." A longtime friend says, "He has been frustrating to those around him who have hoped for bolder progressive positions. His record--the war, BCCI--shows he cares about righting injustice. But he does not sufficiently understand the level of economic injustice that exists in this society. If his passion for justice finds its way into the economics of working- and middle-class Americans, he will be a very powerful candidate."

In the early jockeying, Kerry is likely to display his liberal leanings more than his DLC inclinations. "New Democrats do not inspire Democratic primary voters," says a Kerry adviser. At party events, Kerry does sound more like Ted Kennedy than DLC founder Al From. "No working American should give up life or limb to provide a bigger golden parachute to a failed executive who seeks to fail upwards," he told Democrats in Colorado in March, adding, "Why not have every citizen have access to decent health insurance?... Rather than spend $50,000 a year per prisoner to house young people in jail...why not invest $5,000 a year per child in after-school programs?" There was no talk of undoing the education establishment, rethinking affirmative action or celebrating welfare reform. And Kerry puts his own twist on the straight Democratic juice: "When I was in the Navy I learned about...brotherhood.... The Army says they never leave their wounded. The Marines say they never even leave their dead. All of us need to be Citizen Soldiers again--and as Americans we must never leave each other behind." One can see a campaign theme brewing, a message that marries traditional Democratic concerns--healthcare, social justice, the environment--with the traditional rhetoric of service and duty.

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