50,000,000 Kerry Fans Can't Be Wrong Can They?

And other questions from the campaign trail

In the days following the Iowa caucuses, and the New Hampshire primary a week later, the political news was all John Kerry all the time, and you could not read far or listen long without finding the words shocking and stunning applied to his ascent from the political dead.

I. Howard's End

The biggest surprise was Kerry himself. Long known as a remote, patrician figure of no great energy or conviction--just a couple of weeks before the Iowa turnaround, Gore Vidal remarked that he was looking "a lot like Lincoln, after the assassination"--Kerry caught hold of something in the waning days of Iowa. Periodic visits to C-Span confirmed the buzz: Kerry was actually lighting up rooms, and he was doing it with relentless, full-throated attacks on the Bush regime that would have been inconceivable coming from any mainstream Democrat six months earlier.

But in itself, the resurrection of John Kerry is not the great mystery. In a field that for months had seemed to consist of Howard Dean and everybody else, Kerry was always one of the likelier suspects to rise from the pack in the event that Dean faltered. The abiding question is, how did the Dean campaign fall so far so fast? This is a query for historians now, and in a year we'll have our pick of several books on the subject. They will variously ascribe his collapse to one or more of a handful of factors: his purported "unpresidential" temperament; the very selective scrutiny of American media toward an establishment outsider; the concerted efforts of his Democratic opponents and of party chieftains to smear Dean in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses; and the campaign's own shrillness and self-referentiality at crunch time.

Dean's disappearance was so abrupt and so complete that some now argue it was an another internet-spawned bit of hoodoo, like the dot-com stock bubble of the '90s: The Dean groundswell vanished so quickly because it never really existed. If not, how did the campaign manage to raise $40 million, mostly in increments of less than $200? It's more apt to say that the whole cyber-buzz surrounding Dean amounted to a layer of mystification that caused many to overestimate the size of his following--and its degree of commitment to Dean the candidate versus its taste for an anti-Bush, antiwar, anti-cronyism message that, for a long time, only Dean espoused.

When the tell-alls have been published and some of the machinations exposed, we will gain a more nuanced picture of Dean's rise and fall, but I suspect the arc will be roughly this. Under ceaseless and often unfair attack, by the media as much or more than his Democratic foes, Dean played into their hands at the most critical point of his Iowa campaign. He spent too much time angrily parrying attacks. But more than that he inadvertently turned the focus of his campaign from the issues that had elevated him to his own cult of personality. While his opponents were copping his best lines and elaborating on them, Dean gave his same "red meat" stump speech and bragged increasingly of his great organization and the inevitability of their cause. I watched a number of his campaign appearances on C-Span, too, and often found something creepy about the insularity and self-satisfaction of those events. (That was the unnerving thing about The Scream, wasn't it? That the whole tenor of the Dean rally that night felt so at odds with everybody else's reality as to seem cultish?)

Evidently others thought so too. But if the hordes of Democratic primary voters proved not to like or trust Dean very much in the end, give credit where it's due: Howard Dean nonetheless shaped the campaign we see unfolding in front of us. Now that Kerry has gotten across by means of populist-sounding frontal assaults on the Bush White House's actions, motives, and morals, it's easy to suppose that course was inevitable all along. It wasn't. In fact, there is not much to criticize about the Bush gang now that wasn't already manifest by last summer. (Shitty economy, as far as jobs are concerned; ample public evidence that Bush lied us into war; clear signs that we would be in Iraq a very long time despite the president's pledges...and so on.) But back then, John Kerry's "message," according to Iowa sources he visited around the time, was Hi, I'm John Kerry, and it's my turn.

Dean's tenure as frontrunner forced the rest of the Democratic field to talk tough against Bush as well. And it has paid off very handsomely in a couple of ways we can already measure: record or near-record turnouts at every Democratic primary and caucus held so far, and southbound approval ratings for Bush and his gang.

II. Kerry vs. Kerry

"He's going to be the nominee of the Democratic Party, and he's coming across as a future president," Washington Rep. Norman Dicks raved to an L.A. Times reporter last week. "He's just on fire." This could prove hazardous in the long run: Many longtime Kerry watchers still insist that down deep, he's made of wood. In Boston, Kerry is a famous target of mockery for liberal and conservative columnists alike. The criticisms usually concern his imperious manner, his love of privilege, his unerring sense of what is best for John Kerry. For years his nickname among reporters was "Live Shot," a reference to Kerry's gift for turning up in front of any camera in his vicinity. If he is elected, his wife's nearly half-billion-dollar fortune will make him the wealthiest president the country has ever had.

Can such a dowdy, narcissistic Brahmin keep on burning for the people through November, or will he turn to ash at some point and rise again as Al Gore the Second? In a normal year the answer would be obvious: For a generation now, the Democratic Party has played me-too politics and unswervingly followed Republican leads. But 2004 is not a normal year. The party has caught the scent of Bush's weaknesses--that is, they have finally learned that a good deal of the public sees those weaknesses and despises Bush personally on top of them. Establishment elites in both parties have been heard to fret about Bush's recklessness and his brazen political style.

But the most critical reason for the Democrats' change of heart is material. Among the executive class and the not-so-idle rich--that one-tenth of 1 percent of the population that makes 83 percent of the political contributions in America--Bush is God, or at least Santa Claus. In the Clinton era, the Democrats became adept at drinking from the same corporate fountains as Republicans. But as Alan Murray wrote in the Wall Street Journal on January 27, "those days are over. If any Fortune 500 CEOs are backing John Kerry, they are keeping quiet about it."

Thus the Democrats, for the first time in modern memory, find themselves forced to sing to the people in the cheap seats for their supper. It's noteworthy that DNC head Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton's principal fundraiser and one of the architects of the go-along, get-along DNC, recently took up an attack on Bush that the media had already branded scandalous and absurd when Michael Moore voiced it at a Wesley Clark rally: the lingering matter of Bush's non-service in the Vietnam-era National Guard. McAuliffe was hardly delicate about it. He stopped short of terming Bush a deserter, but called him "a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard."

Interesting times. The White House is clearly off-kilter from all the sudden volleys. Its first line of attack on Kerry, according to the New York Times, will be the Dukakis card: He's "just another Massachusetts liberal." I can't believe they expect to ride this very far. If they do, they will likely learn that the old labels liberal and conservative don't have the same hot-button appeal anymore. The public has begun to see that left versus right is not the name of the game. "Left" and "right," after all, have not had a consequential public disagreement in many years. The split that is inflaming the public mood is the one between insiders and outsiders.

This is the taproot of popular animus toward Bush, but it also happens to be Kerry's great weakness. The real payoff in Republican attacks on Kerry will come from taking shots not at his voting record but at who he is: a mainstay D.C. insider who can be shown, without much trouble, to have twisted with the political breezes all through his career. They will point out that although Kerry may have awakened one recent morn on the wrong side of "special interests," he is still the leading recipient of lobbyist contributions in the US Senate over the past 15 years.

They will highlight his 1995 support of a bill that enabled Enron-style accounting abuses by curbing investor lawsuits. "The law, which consumer groups opposed vociferously precisely because they feared it would lead to white collar crime," wrote Jonathan Cohn in the New Republic, "was part of Newt Gingrich's Contract with America. Yet Kerry voted for it anyway, not once but twice--the second time overriding a veto by President Clinton."

They will pound at the frequent and cheerful hypocrisy of Kerry's collected public utterances, the most famous being his Yes vote on the Iraq war he now condemns. But there's no shortage of examples. JK on the Patriot Act now: "We are a nation of laws and liberties, not of a knock in the night. So it is time to end the era of John Ashcroft. That starts with replacing the Patriot Act with a new law that protects our people and our liberties at the same time." JK on the Patriot Act then: "It reflects an enormous amount of hard work by the members of the Senate Banking Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee. I congratulate them and thank them for that work... [I am] pleased at the compromise we have reached on the anti-terrorism legislation."

And they will trawl up story after story about the kind of guy Kerry is. Howie Carr, one of those Boston columnists who's made a cottage industry of mocking his state's junior senator, recently published a brief compendium of some popular yarns. It's worth quoting at some length to catch the flavor:

"The tales often have one other common thread. Most end with Sen. Kerry inquiring of the lesser mortal: 'Do you know who I am?'

"And now he's running for president as a populist. His first wife came from a Philadelphia Main Line family worth $300 million. His second wife is a pickle-and-ketchup heiress.

"Kerry lives in a mansion on Beacon Hill on which he has borrowed $6 million to finance his campaign. A fire hydrant that prevented him and his wife from parking their SUV in front of their tony digs was removed by the city of Boston at his behest.

"The Kerrys ski at a spa the widow Heinz owns in Aspen, and they summer on Nantucket in a sprawling seaside 'cottage' on Hurlbert Avenue, which is so well-appointed that at a recent fundraiser, they imported porta-toilets onto the front lawn so the donors wouldn't use the inside bathrooms."

Democratic partisans and Bush haters of every stripe will rightly retort that Kerry's sins are far less egregious and consequential than Bush's, but that's not the point. Karl Rove saw the numbers of "nontraditional voters" giving money to Dean at the start, and he has no doubt noticed the record numbers turning out for primaries and caucuses. He's not stupid. The eventual Republican endgame will be to stifle public interest in the whole mess and depress the number of voters that turns out in November. Between the lines the Bush campaign will be saying: You may or may not like us. Okay. But John Kerry--you think John Kerry is something new under the sun? Come on. He's business as usual and this whole process is business as usual. We hope you're on board with us, but don't kid yourself. You can have us or someone else like us. Just remember that a vote for John Kerry means your son will grow up to marry the boy next door.

In short, the White House will labor to present Kerry as just another self-seeking political pro. There's no saying how damaging it will prove; much depends on the tenor and temperature of Kerry's campaign. But it's impossible to think the rap won't stick in some measure--it is, after all, true. And the more it adheres to Kerry, the closer the election will come to a pure up-or-down referendum on Bush.

But even if the White House succeeds in defining the race on those terms (a dicey proposition), there is no assurance at all that George W. Bush will be able to win a referendum on George W. Bush.

III. Bush vs. Bush

No matter how low the approval ratings go, a vast number of anti-Bush folk remain absolutely, fatalistically convinced the White House will find a way to pull out the election. Or steal it, as they did last time. One can't fault them for thinking that this is the most cutthroat bunch of political operators to soil the Oval Office rugs in a long time. On the popular question of whether there will be an October Surprise--a sudden crisis or breakthrough of apparently spontaneous origin that is in fact politically manipulated--the smart-money answer is plain: Only if they can arrange one. Osama naturally looms largest. There are those who believe US intelligence already has a pretty good idea of his whereabouts and is keeping one eye on his movements and the other on the calendar, and they are not just the usual paranoid crowd. This is mainstream cocktail party chatter now. One way of expressing Bush's present crisis is to say that a lot of average people seem prepared to believe he'd do just about anything to stay in power.

But wanting an October coup, finding one, and executing it are three distinctly different things. Popular liberal mythology has visited on Bush and Rove an almost supernatural air of invincibility. It's silly. If Karl Rove is really the Great Gazoo of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, able to bend political reality to his will by sheer force of mind, then tell me again how his boss got in trouble in the first place. The website Pollkatz maintains a tracking chart of Bush's approval ratings (see illustration page 22). The tale they tell is one of steady erosion punctuated by three events that buoyed Bush's numbers: 9/11, the start of the Iraq war, and the capture of Saddam. But the bang afforded by Bush's triumphs and crises has diminished with each succeeding wave. For a White House that is said to be "all politics all the time," and run by a genius to boot, it's a paltry record.

Last Sunday's Meet the Press showed how quickly and profoundly the earth has moved under Bush's feet. Just a couple of weeks ago, charges that Bush was a Vietnam-era deserter from his National Guard unit were quite beyond the pale. Shortly after Michael Moore re-aired the claim at a Wesley Clark rally, I saw Peter Jennings inform Clark that the allegations were baseless en route to asking how the candidate could fail to repudiate them. On Sunday, one of the pooh-bahs of broadcast news, Tim Russert, was sitting in the Oval Office grilling Bush about it. Near the end, Russert held up a chart with data on unemployment (up 33 percent under Bush), economic contraction (2.2 million jobs lost), and the federal deficit ($521 billion next year alone), and said to the president of the United States, in essence, What the fuck?

Weighed against the servility of most press interactions with Bush, Russert's brusqueness came as a shock--but not as great a shock as W's own demeanor. Bush looked disconsolate and distracted. ("Was he medicated?" a friend called to ask afterward. "Is he into the old man's Halcion?") He barely bothered parrying the National Guard question--"I put in my time, proudly so," he croaked--and his famous pugnacity was nowhere in evidence. If the interview had aired in prime time and not on Sunday morning, it might have dropped another 5 to 10 points from his approval rating all by itself. If Bush ever comes this close to his own version of The Scream when people are actually watching, it's big trouble.

The National Guard question is a window on the world of hurt Bush could be in for if Kerry and the Democrats decide to run a serious campaign for once. Claims that Bush never bothered showing up at his Alabama Guard unit have circulated for years. It is widely perceived to be one of those he said-she said matters that can never be settled conclusively owing to missing attendance records. But a blogger named Phil Carter has pointed out at least three other means by which Bush's active duty could be verified: military pay records, military retirement points, and personal income tax records. It's an answerable question that no one has ever pressed seriously. (Of course we already know the answer: If a shred of paper that vindicated Bush existed anywhere, Team W would have produced it in 2000 to lay the subject to rest.)

There is the story of Bush II writ small: He has been "invincible" to the exact extent that the whole political apparatus has remained unwilling to challenge him. If that is really changing now, a rich vein of scandals awaits unpacking, starting with the terms of Bush's 2000 win: the chicanery at numerous levels in Florida, the scandalous 5-4 Supreme Court vote from which two pro-Bush justices should have recused themselves. (Scalia and Thomas had family members who worked for the Bush campaign.) The lies and intelligence manipulations leading to the Iraq invasion are a lode unto themselves. The ongoing 9/11 investigation, and Bush's efforts to stonewall it at every turn, contains enough explosive material to dominate the news cycle for weeks. Unofficially, it's already clear (from leaks and from the strategic excisions in the congressional 9/11 report) that Bush did receive notice in pre-9/11 briefings of a possible imminent attack on US soil involving Saudi nationals--and, most likely for political reasons concerning US ties to the House of Saud, did nothing. This is not the same as saying Bush "knew" about the attacks, but it smacks of appalling negligence and cronyism--two great themes of the Bush administration, and, one hopes, of Kerry's stump speeches.

The handling of pre-9/11 warnings, in turn, could pave the way for a more comprehensive look at all the ways the administration has been cynical and unserious about homeland security. And we have yet to mention the economy and the deficit. In that connection, one of the most telling lines in Bush's poll chart is the one that's not there. W has never earned a significant bounce in public esteem for anything he's done on the home front.

If attacks on Bush's credibility and performance stay at critical mass for very long--the Republicans desperately need a Kerry scandal--it will upset the White House's entire reelection strategy. It's no secret that Rove means to position Bush as a resolute, in-command war president. But when the Republicans scheduled their three-hanky telethon for New York in September, they could not have anticipated a climate in which the Democratic nominee might be able to stand up and say: "Mr. Bush, it is offensive to see you wrap yourself in the memory of a tragedy that you might have prevented for the sake of your own political gain."

It's early. A dozen things could happen to change the campaign landscape overnight. But for the first time it seems more than plausible that it will be a long, hot summer for Bush--possibly to be followed by a long, hot winter back in Crawford, Texas.

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