It's beginning to look like Sen. John Kerry protested the wrong war.
Kerry came home from the Vietnam War with medals on his chest for bravery and became a leader of the antiwar movement. More than three decades later, he assumed Democratic presidential primary voters would be impressed by his military credentials. However, it appears Democrats want an antiwar protester, not a war hero. And that candidate is Howard Dean, who had a back problem that kept him out of Vietnam (but not off the ski slopes).
In the fall of 2002, while Kerry and other congressional Democrats were sounding almost as bellicose as George Bush about the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, Dean was out opposing the war with straight talk and without fear of President Bush's poll ratings at the time. He used the war to tap into the anger - some would say loathing - party loyalists feel toward the president and turn it into a movement. Dean quickly surged to the front of the pack and used the Internet to revolutionize political fundraising. Kerry and his campaign strategists seemed paralyzed, unsure how to deal with the Dean phenomenon they are still trying to understand.
This time last year Kerry was the presumed frontrunner for his party's presidential nomination. On paper, he had it all - rich, articulate, seasoned, good looks (either Lincolnesque or Kennedyesque, depending on which Kerry fans you talk to) and a highly decorated war hero to boot. Now, less than two months before the first votes are to be cast by Democrats in Iowa and New Hampshire, Kerry is struggling to revive his imperiled campaign. The Massachusetts Democrat recently fired his campaign manager, who was followed out the door by two other top aides, in an awkward attempt to regain his political footing in New Hampshire, a critical state where he is running a distant second to Dean.
If Kerry's candidacy is buried in the New Hampshire snow in late January, Democrats for years to come will be asking "what if" Kerry had voted against the congressional resolution authorizing the president to invade Iraq? Would that have kept Dean, a physician and former governor of tiny Vermont, from riding the war issue to the front of the pack? Would a no vote on the war have spared Kerry the contortions he has gone through this past year trying to appease antiwar Democrats for whom "Bush's war" is the overarching issue of this primary season?
The more Kerry tries to explain his war vote, the worse he comes across. After voting for war, Kerry turned around and voted against the $87.5-billion package to continue funding military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, as if that would make things right with antiwar Democrats. In a recent radio interview, Kerry said he voted to authorize Bush to use "the threat of force" against Saddam Hussein, even though the resolution authorized "the use of force." Certainly, a president does not need a Senate resolution to threaten the use of force.
Maybe Kerry has been in the Senate too long, which could explain why he is constantly revising and amending his remarks and sometimes talking out of both sides of his mouth. Dick Polman, a reporter for Knight Ridder Newspapers, recently captured the perfect example of what I'm trying to get at. Kerry said on a New Hampshire show that if Dean were the Democratic nominee next year, he would lose to President Bush.
The next morning, Polman reported, Kerry was asked why he had assailed Dean's electability. "I don't believe I said that," the senator replied. He was then confronted with his own words on tape: "Howard Dean will not be able to beat George Bush; I believe that very strongly."
So wasn't he saying Dean is unelectable?
"Well, it's a synonym," Kerry explained. "I'll accept that. I didn't say he was "unelectable.' I just said he couldn't beat George Bush."
The question of Dean's electability is fair game for his opponents. Democrats should be asking themselves how a campaign fueled by anger will play with voters in the general election. The Dean campaign may stall in the early primary states as more Democrats ponder the electability question and decide he is a bad bet to beat George W. Bush. Or Democrats may decide that, win or lose, Dean is the candidate best-suited to give Bush the kind of political thrashing they believe he deserves.
If Dean falters, it's not clear whether Kerry, if he can right his troubled campaign, would emerge as the alternative. But based on what we've seen from Kerry so far, the problem is less the campaign than the candidate.