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The Man Who Could Beat Bush

I. Kerry: When He’s On, He’s Very, Very Good . . .

NASHUA, N.H. — The great poets don’t 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 Dean’s 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 that’s routinely ignored. He has lifted Wesley Clark’s mantle of military hero — well, actually, it was Clark who lifted it from Kerry, and now Kerry’s 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. He’s a social liberal who’s always run strongest among culturally moderate white working-class Catholic voters. He’s a Clinton-like New Democrat whom George Bush’s class warfare has propelled in a more populist direction. Above all, he’s 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, he’s 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 senator’s 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 week’s 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 Lieberman’s 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. That’s not just an artifact of his successes to date, or his lead over Bush in last weekend’s Newsweek poll. It’s 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. He’s 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 administration’s 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 who’s been more comfortable previously championing the environment than the rights of workers.

Kerry’s newfound quasi populism isn’t folksy, thankfully enough. The descendant of Boston’s Winthrop and Forbes families (no, not the arriviste Malcolm Forbeses; the 18th- and 19th-century whaling-fortune Forbeses) hasn’t started droppin’ his g’s. 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, “It’s not ‘mission accomplished.’ It’s ‘mission abandoned!’”

 

Except half the times I heard him speak, Kerry couldn’t refrain from inserting some material, so that the line came out: “It’s not ‘mission accomplished.’ It’s ‘mission not even legitimately attempted.’ It’s ‘mission abandoned!’”

Now, there’s a battle cry! Left to his own devices, Kerry suffers from adverbial bloat — just one manifestation of a larger fog that sometimes creeps between him and his listeners. Questions on energy or the environment at various town halls over the past week often were answered with bureaucratese. Emotion, publicly displayed, can embarrass him. At a town meeting last Sunday in a fire station in Hampton, one woman haltingly told him about the reductions in Medicaid and food stamps that have left her having to choose between food and medication. In 1992, Bill Clinton encountered a woman with a similar dilemma at a town meeting at a Nashua senior center; he reached down and embraced the woman before rising — in both body and voice — to offer policy solutions to her problem. To a press corps still just getting to know Clinton, it was an early indication of his instinctual political capacities. No such revelations were forthcoming with Kerry; he immediately pivoted away from the woman to listeners on the other side of the firehouse and provided a perfectly sensible, if emotionally distant, policy answer.

That said, candidate Kerry is measurably less discursive, more focused and generally warmer than he was a year ago, and when he’s “on” — as he was Tuesday night, as he was in his 1996 debates against Republican William Weld in their senatorial contest — he’s terrific. Surrounded by his “band of brothers” with whom he’d served in Vietnam, demanding a government “that’s on your side,” dropping all adverbs, impassioned and direct, Kerry transformed himself into the most forceful and credible Democratic political leader since Clinton.

II. Dean: Curb Your Enthusiasm

In New Hampshire, the normally feisty Howard Dean lost his feist.

If Kerry has had to learn to emote a bit more, Dean came to New Hampshire under universal instructions to tone it down. The media, as is their wont, made far too much of Dean’s Iowa election-night yawp. That said, Dean’s talk managed to add to the doubt that already was dogging his candidacy. Without changing the words of his stump speech very much, he switched to a flat, conversational delivery. And with the new music, the lyrics suddenly didn’t work so well.

The new, subdued Dean was perhaps most in evidence at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s dinner last Saturday night in Nashua. The four major candidates, plus Lieberman and Dennis Kucinich, all delivered their stump speeches, and Dean’s was notable chiefly for the absence of applause. It wasn’t that people were upset or disagreed with what he said, and there were plenty of Dean supporters in the room. It was that he recited his applause lines as though they were footnotes. Wesley Clark, who followed him to the podium, made more noise in his first paragraph than Dean made in his entire speech.

Earlier that day, Dean addressed a rally of his supporters at Wentworth by the Sea — a little white jewel of a hotel, built a century earlier for the WASP elite of nearby Portsmouth, to which Deaniacs streamed to hear their man. As was the case at most rallies I attended this past week, the room was too small for the crowd, and many were placed in an adjacent room, where Dean’s voice was piped in.

Touting himself as the outsider, as the messenger of political reform, Dean also differentiated his positions on both Iraqi wars — Poppy’s and W’s — from Kerry’s. He spoke of taking the country back for average people, and the people in the overflow room suddenly cheered, breaking the stillness in the room where Dean himself was speaking. In the main room, the hushed quality of Dean’s voice had put the crowd on good behavior. Next door, unable to see their candidate straining to be well-mannered, the Deaniacs behaved as Deaniacs of old.

In keeping with the almost tutorial air of the rally, the main-room Deaniacs turned the question period into something like an NPR public-affairs game show. (At one point, Dean cited a recent survey showing that viewers of Fox News tended to misunderstand, well, damn near everything. When he mentioned that the same survey demonstrated that NPR listeners actually did know what was going on, the crowd applauded.) The first questioner asked Dean about the spread of AIDS in Uganda. The next asked him about the mishandling of Native American trust funds, and the third followed up with a query about Monsanto’s environmental practices. I was afraid that the next questioner would ask Dean to solve a quadratic equation.

 

On Election Day, Dean ran distinctly better among college graduates — he got 28 percent of their vote — than non–college grads, among whom he won just 20 percent support. Kerry experienced no such gap, pulling down 38 percent backing among graduates and 41 percent among non-grads. The exit polling showed that New Hampshire Democrats plainly opposed the war, and felt no safer after Saddam’s capture. Nonetheless, they voted for John Kerry. Whether full-throated or muzzled, Howard Dean did not strike them as a plausible victor in the November contest against Bush.

 

III. Clark and Edwards: When Showing Up Isn’t Enough

If nothing else, Wesley Clark’s decision to start out in New Hampshire had precedent on its side. The only other general to win the White House in the past hundred years, Dwight Eisenhower, had also started in New Hampshire, in the Republican primary of 1952, in which he bested Robert Taft by a healthy 50 percent to 41 percent margin.

There was one difference, though. Eisenhower, who was NATO commander at the time, never set foot in New Hampshire. He remained on duty in Europe, an undeclared candidate, while his backers put his name on the ballot — and, with their help, that name worked magic.

In the aftermath of the past week, Wesley Clark may wish he’d never set foot in New Hampshire, either. His campaign was a cavalcade of klutziness — a flat debate performance, a petty and snappish response (putting down Kerry as a mere lieutenant) unretracted, an obvious question (on Michael Moore’s calling Bush a deserter) to which no answer had been prepared. At one town meeting last week, Clark was introduced by two West Point classmates. The first told how Clark had not only graduated first in his class but also helped some slower pupils on the rugby team — himself and his fellow introducer — get through their exams. The second speaker came on and said the very same thing. But Clark wasn’t there yet, so the second speaker said it again. And again. And again. No one from the campaign came up to say that Clark had yet to arrive, so the erstwhile rugby player regaled the crowd with the same three sentences for a full 10 minutes until Clark finally showed up.

When he showed, the general was actually quite good. He has mastered his stump speech, not just the words but the manner, the inflections. Whether he’s mastered any more political arts than that is open to question: Though the crowd expected to be able to ask questions, Clark left abruptly when he concluded his talk.

In a sense, Clark lost this race in Iowa, when Howard Dean finished third behind Kerry. Clark was to have been the anti-Dean, the guy who opposed the war but who had unchallengeable national-security credentials. It’s not at all clear that Clark would have entered the race at all had John Kerry not tanked in the middle of 2003. When Kerry returned from the dead in Iowa, the very raison d’être of Clark’s campaign suffered a likely fatal blow. Indeed, precisely because he wasn’t a lifer, Lieutenant Kerry’s war was much more a grunt’s war than Clark’s, and Kerry and his handlers have far more experience than Clark and his in reassembling his old buddies, and the legions of vets whom Kerry mobilized against the war once they were stateside. Since his first, unsuccessful race for Congress in the ’70s, Kerry has run with vets at his side. There were more of them than ever this time out, and it was a tableau that Clark never came close to matching.

John Edwards, meanwhile, got lost in the shuffle. The trial lawyer turned North Carolina senator was certainly the most talented campaigner of the lot; he delivered his populist assault on the Bush administration with spellbinding force. I saw him during one such performance (the text never changed) from the balcony of the Palace Theater in downtown Manchester, from which vantage point the fusion of thought and gesture seemed so perfect that the speech almost seemed choreographed. As their fellow Iowans had, New Hampshirites warmed to Edwards; 73 percent told exit pollsters they had a favorable impression of him, with just 22 percent unfavorable — a rating higher even than Kerry’s.

But Edwards still suffers from a gravitas gap that is partly a function of his youthful appearance. More seriously, while no one has so thoroughly demonstrated the deep appeal of a populist politics in the age of Bush, no one has so demonstrated its limits. Edwards simply does not discuss the war in his talk, and with Democrats concerned about the ability of their nominee to neutralize Bush on security issues, Edwards simply didn’t make the cut.

 

Now, Edwards goes south, where he’ll have to find some way to augment his appeal if he’s to beat back the challenges of Kerry, Clark and Al Sharpton, who’s made a major play for South Carolina’s African-American vote. Dean may retain an advantage in Arizona and New Mexico among next week’s states, but there’s no guarantee just now that he can win anyplace against the Kerry onslaught. Kerry looks likely to pick up a majority of the seven states up for grabs next week — and maybe, more than a majority.

IV. First Principles

For all that they’ve been fighting one another over the past year, there are some striking similarities in the candidates’ messages — striking because they take the Democrats onto terrain where they don’t normally wander. Consider, for instance, the C word. John Kerry decries the crony capitalism of the Bush years, while Howard Dean compares the current form of capitalism to “a hockey game without a referee.”

By promoting so radical, deregulated and corrupt a form of capitalism, George W. Bush has driven the Democrats to a defense of first principles that they haven’t mounted in years: Yes, they believe in government. In the face of an increasingly dysfunctional private system, all call for a variant of national health insurance. With American corporations now creating so many new jobs overseas, the candidates all back energy conservation, transportation and kindred government-funded programs both for their own sake and to generate new employment here at home.

Karl Rove and George Bush have nothing to offer an anxious working and middle class that will address any of these things. They plan, rather, to win their support by demonizing the Democratic nominee on cultural issues. That won’t be all that easy to do against the Kerry who addressed the nation on Tuesday night. “I depended on the same band of brothers I depended on 30 years ago,” said Kerry, thanking Max Cleland and a bunch of guys wearing the insignias of their old units for delivering in New Hampshire as they had in Iowa. “We’re a little older, a little grayer, but we still know how to fight for our country!”

In an anxious nation, with wages stagnating and new jobs nowhere to be seen, the Democrats are settling on a tough, smart candidate. He may just go all the way.


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