Kerry in the Crosshair

Can John Kerry withstand the scrutiny that comes with frontrunner status?


John Kerry, like Howard Dean before him, is now the “inevitable” Democratic nominee. In practice, as Dean found, this simply means that he’s in for some withering media scrutiny and a whole new level of opposition research. How well will he hold up? What’s the worst that can be said about him? And is he really the most “electable” Democrat in the race?

If history is any guide, Kerry is on track to win the Democratic nomination. Since 1976, every candidate who has won both Iowa and New Hampshire has landed the nomination. True, he’s won only about 1 percent of the votes needed to win the nomination, and he’s about to compete in southern states where his Northeastern reserve is likely to go over less well than in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Kerry’s military record and history of public service, including an impressive foreign policy resume, makes him palatable to mainstream Democrats. But what sort of criticisms will Kerry come up against, and, in Karl Rove’s hands, could they prove fatal?

Too Liberal?

Kerry looked moderate next to Dean, but some people are taking a second look, now that he’s in the lead, and deciding that he’s actually a lefty. The Economist lays out a possible line of attack in this vein:

“So how will the Republican high command deal with this extraordinary shake-up? All the signs are that they will treat the new front-runner in exactly the same way as the old one. Doesn’t Mr Kerry hail from liberal Massachusetts? Didn’t he once serve as lieutenant-governor to the pathetically liberal Michael Dukakis? Doesn’t he love taxes and hate the death penalty? Ed Gillespie, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has pointed out that Mr Kerry has a 93% approval rating from Americans for Democratic Action, the leading liberal rating organisation: even higher than Ted Kennedy, who gets a mere 88%. “Who would have guessed it?” crows Mr Gillespie. “Ted Kennedy is the conservative senator from Massachusetts!”

Iraq Bites Back

A big problem for Kerry in the Democratic party is his wishy-washiness on the Iraq War. He voted for Bush’s resolution to go to war, but not for the $87 billion to fund the reconstruction efforts. His attempts to explain these two votes leave him vulnerable to critiques about his decision-making abilities. Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, writes in the Los Angeles Times:

“[His flip-flopping on Iraq] has caused Kerry a lot of grief among Deaniac Democrats, and he’s twisted himself into a pretzel to explain away this vote.
He claims that “I voted for the resolution to get the inspectors in there, period,” and that he had no idea that Bush would use the authority granted to him to actually go to war. If you believe this, Kerry is too naive to be president. A likelier explanation is that he’s trying to be pro-war and antiwar at the same time.
Then Kerry had the nerve to criticize the Bush administration for a “cut and run strategy” in Iraq. That’s pretty rich coming from someone who voted against the $87-billion aid package that’s essential to our nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Kerry’s inconsistency is stunning: He (like Sen. John Edwards) supported the war — kind of — but then refused to give our troops the resources necessary to finish the job.”

Kerry’s position on Iraq isn’t the only instance of inconsistencies in his record. As Mickey Kaus points out, he also claims that he played a role in welfare reform in the 90s, but in reality, only voted “for show” on the final passage of the bill.

Senate Slip-Up

Part of the reason Kerry has this consistency problem is that simply by virtue of being a Senator, he has a long paper trail of voting records that can be dissected by both Democratics and team Bush. As The Economist notes: “The Nixon White House collected “opposition” material on Mr Kerry back in 1971, when he was a leader of the anti-war movement. It is no accident that no sitting senator has won the White House since JFK. Senators inevitably leave incriminating paper trails—and Mr Kerry is no exception.” Critics also argue that Kerry, never one for detail, didn’t achieve much of a legislative legacy.

The Frigidity Factor

One of Kerry’s strengths is also his weakness—he “looks” and “acts” in a presidential manner, yet people find him dry and unapproachable. He’s from a blue-blood family and, as one politico said, “He is the richest man in a Senate full of rich people.” He’s done well in the Northeast, but when it comes to the south, he may have more of a problem. The St. Petersburg Times editorializes:

“Then there is the question of how well Kerry’s personality will wear with voters. Kerry is striving to thaw his patrician chill, but Iowa and New Hampshire did not give him occasion to bond with the NASCAR dads, Hispanic and African-American voters who will be a big part of the Democratic electorate now that the campaign has headed south.”

Yes, Kerry is a formidable candidate, but the race is still in its early days, and anything could happen. As the New York Times noted after the New Hampshire Primary:

“Senator John Kerry is now the unchallenged front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But it would be ridiculous for the party to settle on a candidate because he managed to win the biggest slice of the vote in one small state that happens to be next-door to his home base. When larger, more diverse states start holding their primaries next week, the voters deserve to have a real choice.”

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