February 3, 2004

If not Dean for president, then who?

"If not Dean, then who?" were the parting words of my last column. The answer is John Kerry. And if you stick around for the next few minutes, I'll tell you why.

Two months ago, I received a phone call from the Kerry Campaign asking me to drop out of school and come up to help with the ground operation in New Hampshire. I turned them down for various reasons, including a nagging suspicion that Kerry was finished. He was lagging in fundraising. His speeches were too long and too verbose. And the press was using him as a punching bag.

I didn't know it at the time, but there was a dash underway. It now seems as if December saw John Kerry's "fight or flight" instinct kick in. "We were losing to Al Sharpton in South Carolina," he recounted a few days ago in The Washington Post. And the campaign was about to go into debt. If I were a gambling man (and I am), I would wager that it happened when he mortgaged his house and infused more than $6 million of his own life savings—the lion's share of his wealth—into his campaign in order to keep it operating. It was all up to him. He fired his campaign manager. He took a long look at his speeches and adopted a new strategy. He began to fight for his political life.

I believe that style plays an important part in political (and everyday) life. Gestures, phrasing, and presentation matter, even though they have little to do with the substantive ideas and ideals of a candidate. During the early period of the campaign, John Kerry had little style, only substance, and it obfuscated his major policy positions. This was disastrous, since the war hero and senator was quickly dubbed "the man to beat" by the news media, which didn't force him to compete for money, publicity, and allowed him to coast on his initial momentum until he was blindsided by a much more aggressive candidate. Howard Dean had a bombastic style and was quick to judge, malign, and attack. Dean's rise to prominence was born of his willingness to smatter the administration with negative adjectives, as well as the sublimation of his campaign's political structure and direction to the activists intent on opposing the war and bringing to the forefront objectives fixated upon by small minorities. The Washington Post this week has detailed how the Dean campaign literally burned through $30 million by busing in supporters to rallies in Iowa and New Hampshire to give the illusion of "momentum," and spending lavishly on fundraisers ($15,000 for valet parking alone). It was the style of a firecracker that has quickly burnt out.

John Kerry is "What's Next." After his return from the dead in Iowa and New Hampshire, he has found his stride, and has narrowly tailored not only his criticisms of the current administration (unwieldy unilateralism, ignorant spending, and an all-encompassing credibility gap), but also his own policy positions. His analysis of the effort in Iraq is grounded in realist thought: let other nations step in and share the blood price of "winning the peace" to lessen the burden on the American taxpayer and increase the support for the effort from the international community. His economic aims are pragmatic: roll back the tax cuts for the wealthiest taxpayers (who disproportionately benefit from them and are least likely to spend the reimbursed money immediately) to finance grants for low-income college students and to fund Medicare. Pay down the national debt, and balance the budget.

John Kerry is the candidate best positioned to provide a viable alternative to George W. Bush on the issues of national security, economic policy, education reform, and civil rights.

There will be problems. Kerry's challengers right now are trying to depict his candidacy as one of pure momentum without substance (an inaccurate claim). In the coming days their attacks will likely become more virulent as Kerry's lock on the nomination tightens. But these will be minor issues. Early next week I'll go over what I think are important steps for Kerry to take in order to present the American voters with a clear choice between the failed promises of "Returning Honor and Dignity to the White House" and the "Real Deal" of John Kerry.