The John Kerry who won nine of ten Super Tuesday states, and with those victories Democratic nominee-in-waiting status, was not the John Kerry who officially launched his presidential campaign six months ago. Kerry underwent a campaign-season “extreme makeover” that transformed him from a tiresome noncontender who echoed the failed themes of the Democratic Party’s disastrous 2002 campaign into a credible alternative to George W. Bush. It is this evolved John Kerry who has won twenty-seven of thirty Democratic primary and caucus contests. And while the fall campaign will turn on factors as diverse as unemployment figures and Osama bin Laden’s fugitive status, the extent to which Kerry embraces and expands upon that evolution could be decisive in determining whether he beats Bush in November.
To get a sense of how radical the remake has been, consider the issue of trade. A pre-makeover Kerry appeared this past September before the Detroit Economic Club and declared himself “an entrepreneurial Democrat.” He condemned Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt for advocating a “retreat from the global economy” because they were critical of free-trade agreements. Dean’s pledge to insert environmental and labor standards into trade agreements “would mean we couldn’t sell a single car anywhere in the world,” Kerry griped. Five months later, with Dean and Gephardt out of the race, Kerry was sixty miles south of Detroit in Toledo, where he rallied Ohio primary voters with a pledge to “create a fair playing field for our trade relationships in the world” by launching a 120-day review of all trade agreements as part of a push to assert labor and environmental standards.
Kerry’s changing colors have already provided fodder for charges that he’s a hypocrite. Two days after Super Tuesday, the Bush camp fired round one of the TV advertising campaign that will be the public face of a $175 million re-election effort. Bush himself says that his campaign will seek at every turn to contrast Kerry’s record with his campaign-trail promises. Kerry should get used to being called names. And he should recognize that whether his transformations on everything from trade policy to support for the Iraq war are condemned as hypocrisy or hailed as genuine growth, it is the evolved John Kerry that voters like; while exit polls pegged him as the favorite of the electability crowd, Kerry was by Super Tuesday pretty consistently winning among voters who ranked issues and ideology as higher priorities.
With the nomination fight winding down, Kerry will be pressured to devolve toward the cautious centrism that characterized the early, “going nowhere fast” stage of his campaign. The corporate Democratic Leadership Council and a horse race-obsessed Washington press corps will argue that he can’t raise money or appeal to centrist voters unless he douses the populist fires. That’s certainly what the Bush camp wants. Campaign czar Karl Rove would like nothing better than a challenge to Bush from the John Kerry who voted for the use-of-force resolution on Iraq, the Patriot Act, “No Child Left Behind” education reforms and fast-track authority to allow Bush to negotiate a sweeping Free Trade Area of the Americas agreement–rather than from the John Kerry who learned to savage those initiatives on the campaign trail. Bush benefited tremendously from 2000 debates in which he and Al Gore seemed to agree on a wide range of issues. Like Kerry, Gore evolved into a better candidate during his 2000 nomination fight with Bill Bradley. But as soon as he secured the nomination, he let his primary muscles go soft. If Kerry is smart, he’ll learn from Gore’s mistakes and remember that when he started evolving into a more aggressive and progressive candidate, he started winning.