I. Kerry: When Hes On, Hes Very, Very Good . . .
NASHUA, N.H. The great poets dont imitate, T.S. Eliot famously observed, they steal. By that standard, John Kerry has emerged as the great poet of the 2004 Democratic presidential field. He has appropriated Howard Deans savage indignation at George W. Bush. He has taken John Edwards indictment of Bush for dividing the nation into two Americas a favored elite and a middle- and working-class majority thats routinely ignored. He has lifted Wesley Clarks mantle of military hero well, actually, it was Clark who lifted it from Kerry, and now Kerrys taken it back.
But then, one reason why Kerry looked to be the strongest candidate in the field a year ago, as the race was just shaping up, is that he stands at the real center of the Democratic Party. Hes a social liberal whos always run strongest among culturally moderate white working-class Catholic voters. Hes a Clinton-like New Democrat whom George Bushs class warfare has propelled in a more populist direction. Above all, hes a tough dove, whose core political identity the Vietnam War hero who founded Viet Vets Against the War has enabled him to win support from across (and outside) the Democratic Party. In a sense, hes come by his thefts honestly each one reflected either a part of him that was already there or a journey on which he was already embarked.
Now, it seems, the Democratic Party is embarked on a journey with Kerry. The Massachusetts senators Tuesday-night victory, coming on the heels of his come-from-nowhere victory in Iowa the week before, has rendered him all but the presumptive nominee. He moves on to next weeks primaries with tremendous momentum; his opponents, separately and combined, have none. Howard Dean is on the verge of having his candidacy reduced to a niche movement, and must run next week in seven states that seem less hospitable to him than Iowa and New Hampshire. Edwards and Clark are moving to friendlier terrain, but New Hampshire diminished them both, and they run the risk of canceling each other out. Joe Liebermans increasingly oddball campaign he seems to be running more against Mario Cuomo in 1992 than George W. Bush in 2004 is already grist for the next political trivia board game.
Kerry, by contrast, will be sweeping into states with the aura of the man who could beat Bush. Thats not just an artifact of his successes to date, or his lead over Bush in last weekends Newsweek poll. Its also the result of his dazzling performance on election night, where he managed to deliver a devastating populist attack on Bush and cast himself as a leader of his grunt comrades, arrayed around him on the stage, all in the first minute and 30 seconds of his speech.
It was a dazzling performance, the more so because Kerry had been something less than dazzling in the week leading up to it. Though drawing large crowds, and generally effective on the stump, he often lacked the focus, the bite, he brought to his election-night performance.
Mind you, Kerry has a first-rate stump speech. As Al Gore did in his speech to the 2000 national convention, Kerry goes after the corporate villains of contemporary America oil companies, insurance companies, polluters, defrauders. Hes particularly caustic toward what he terms the Benedict Arnold companies and CEOs that get tax write-offs for moving headquarters and plants and jobs overseas. Like Edwards, he dwells more and more on the fundamental unfairness of the contemporary American economy, and the administrations unceasing efforts to make the economy even more unfair. He has added to his litany an attack on the structural unfairness of the American workplace a relatively new tack for a pol whos been more comfortable previously championing the environment than the rights of workers.
Kerrys newfound quasi populism isnt folksy, thankfully enough. The descendant of Bostons Winthrop and Forbes families (no, not the arriviste Malcolm Forbeses; the 18th- and 19th-century whaling-fortune Forbeses) hasnt started droppin his gs. Kerry opts instead for the cadences of John Kennedy, or the symmetries of a well-turned line. We will reduce the poverty of millions, he declaimed on Tuesday night, rather than reducing the taxes of millionaires.
Problem is, Kerry normally steps on nearly as many good lines as his writers can turn out. Much of his stump speech plays off the phrase Mission accomplished, the banner under which Bush so disastrously strutted during his visit to the carrier Abraham Lincoln last May. Bush has indeed accomplished his mission for a rogues gallery of cronies whom Kerry enthusiastically ticks off. But when it comes to providing health care, jobs, affordable college and the like, Kerry concludes, Its not mission accomplished. Its mission abandoned!