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Marrying Kerry

When I winced at one of John Kerry’s convoluted answers during last week’s debate at USC, a colleague said to me, “I know why you don’t like Kerry. You don’t think he’s liberal enough.”

No, it’s more a feeling that the Democrats — now that they have overwhelmingly chosen their Anybody But Bush — have the wrong body.

Kerry’s voting record has little to do with it. The National Journal overstates the case in rating him the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate, but his record isn’t bad at all for an American presidential candidate.

The candidacy itself worries me.

I watched Kerry close-up during that last week in Iowa as he moved to the front of the pack, and I could never feel or see all that fabled Big Mo that was reportedly carrying him. Even as the polls put him on top, I found Kerry awkwardly struggling to focus, refract and radiate much if any of the passion that so many Democrats were rushing to invest in him.

Six weeks later, his nomination now a fait accompli, I see little improvement. I got woozy trying to follow Kerry’s pretzel-like non-answer on gay marriage at the same USC debate. When asked at last Saturday’s New York rematch if he’s a liberal, Kerry responded with a painful — I would say shameful — dodge, his little finger visibly shaking on camera. He never answered. Imagine asking Bush if he accepts being called a conservative, and what do you think his answer would be?

Even during his Super Tuesday national victory speech, virtually claiming the Blue mantle, Kerry still seemed to be rambling, groping for an overarching theme. As Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe says: “Kerry can come up with sentences that have a dozen subordinate clauses in them that you couldn’t diagram on five blackboards.”

The problem is not just stylistic. Kerry’s looping oratory is clearly a symptom of excessive processing, of a basic ambiguity that blurs his political soul. Even as he speaks, Kerry is simultaneously second-guessing the reactions of his audience, correcting, updating and re-charting his course, sometimes several times, in one given response.

Kerry argues that Bush will fight the election around national security and taunts him to “Bring It On.” But the Bush campaign isn’t so stupid as to bet the White House solely on a direct challenge to war-hero Kerry’s military credentials. Instead, the president has already hinted his attack will focus on Kerry’s “uncertainty” — that the Massachusetts senator has been for the war and against it, for the Patriot Act and against it, for NAFTA and against it, for the tax cut and against it, for gay marriage and against it.

How on target does that sound?

Democrats scurried in the final weeks, convinced that the factor that counts is the intangible quality they believe John Kerry possesses: electability. A process not terribly different than ordering a catalog bride based on her presumed and untested prowess in the . . . kitchen.

Much more than Kerry’s culinary skills are about to be tested. This week the Bush-Cheney campaign will unleash its first massive campaign advertising bombardment against him — a $4.4 million salvo from its near bottomless $150 million war chest.

Within weeks, the terms of the presidential race will be redefined by whatever dynamic emerges between the two candidates. I make no predictions other than disagreeing with the common notion that this election will be close. Either it will be an adult-like, grounded and experienced John Kerry towering over a loutish frat-boy Bush. Or, it’s going to be a cocksure, self-confident wartime president running circles around a dithering, ponderous, self-contradicting Beltway Brahmin.

One way or the other, one of these guys will lose bigtime November 2.

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