In many ways, Senator John Kerry is the perfect candidate for the Democratic Party–handsome and serious, well regarded if not widely loved, deeply experienced in governing policy and sincerely committed to advancing the public good. Above all, Kerry can be counted on not to disturb the party’s uptight wariness toward big ideas and adventurous goals. His meticulous self-caution may be the unspoken reason he was picked as everybody’s default candidate. With Kerry, the long-stewing intramural arguments over what exactly the Democratic Party stands for could be deferred once again. The watchword for 2004 became: Please, no fussing and fighting–we’re Democrats. Dems are, instead, united in an effort to relieve the country of its failed President. They expect Kerry to win the people’s gratitude for not being George W. Bush.
In that event, the gratitude may be short-lived. The Democratic Party has been stuck in slow gear for two decades, as it struggled honorably and heroically to defend important accomplishments from its past against right-wing onslaughts. It struggled, too, to win national elections, recognizing that its old themes no longer seemed to work but deeply divided over how to refresh the agenda with new ideas. As Democratic elected ranks dwindled, the party chose accommodation or shyness. Are Democrats going to be known as aggressive reformers, propelled by advanced ideas from the bottom up? Or do they now see themselves mainly as sound managers, still sensitive but less provocative, steering government in a more business-friendly manner? Bill Clinton charmed his way through these tensions. The party was rewarded with minority status.
John Kerry did not create this ambiguity of purpose, but he also does not intend to resolve it. His career and carefully nuanced positions suggest he is comfortable with straddle politics, and may not even regard it as a problem. He will manage the quandary–with less guile than Clinton but also less skill. Kerry strikes me as a man who loves government but dislikes politics. That is, he has a genuine talent for working through the complexities of high policy in Washington (a quality utterly missing in the incumbent). But Kerry seems quite uncomfortable in the raw, uncharted politics of opening up new terrain–recognizing the potential of untested ideas and mobilizing untapped popular forces to support them. The party’s great Presidents were, above all, politicians with such creative skills.
The weakness is not Kerry’s alone. The contemporary Democratic Party has also drawn back from the kind of up-close engagement with ordinary people that used to be its hallmark. It is still very much a top-down operation, despite this year’s efforts to knock on doors and talk to real people. The mass-market technologies of television-driven campaigns encouraged this distancing but have also weakened the party’s ability to listen and learn, to grasp what’s bubbling up in people’s lives and how Democrats might respond imaginatively. A disconnected politician can still win elections, given the uses of big money, but he may also be blindsided by political upthrusts he didn’t see coming. He loses self-confidence. He relies more anxiously on abstracted analyses from polls, policy experts and pricey consultants. Kerry’s career and campaign reflect these limitations. Within his party, losing touch is a low-grade disease.