It is Saturday morning, Jan. 18, and in Washington and San Francisco, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators have gathered to protest the president's pending war. In Des Moines, Iowa, hundreds of Democrats are turning out, too -- both to oppose that war, it seems, and begin the process of unseating that president.
Almost a year to the day before Iowa's caucuses will start to winnow out the Democratic presidential field, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has come to Des Moines to kick off his campaign. His staff has scheduled his first public event at a downtown restaurant that holds about 200 people, so to meet Kerry, the more than 600 Iowa Democrats who show up must take the stairs from the restaurant to a larger performance space several stories up. Three out of the six announced Democratic hopefuls are working the state this weekend; the other two are Rep. Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.), the congressman from down river who won the Iowa caucuses during his 1988 presidential bid, and former Gov. Howard Dean (D-Vt.), who managed to visit Iowa 18 times during 2002 despite holding office.
This is Kerry's first event in the state, however, and Iowans have jammed the room to the rafters. But it's not just Kerry who has turned them out. They are angry with their party for its failures in last fall's elections and livid about George W. Bush (as Democrats have not been livid about a president since Richard Nixon), stunned and apprehensive that he has pushed the nation to the brink of war in Iraq. "I'm looking for somebody to stop this war," says Enid, a retiree who's been inclining toward the anti-war Dean. A group of undergrads from Drake College are sprawled on the floor awaiting Kerry. Washington, says one, is too far off for any but a handful of protesters to have made the trek, but they're definitely in the market for a peace candidate.
Indeed, the room feels a little like a gathering of anti-war Democrats in 1968 or 1972 -- which is right where John Kerry came in. The assembled Iowans don't know much about him, but they do know, in greater or lesser degree, about his Vietnam War. Enlisting in the navy after graduating Yale University. Commanding a gunboat in the Mekong Delta. Receiving three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star for charging onto the shore under fire to take out an enemy gun that could have blown his boat to smithereens. Returning stateside and becoming a spokesman for Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Leading an encampment of anti-war vets on the National Mall in 1971, tossing away his military ribbons in protest, going before a U.S. Senate committee and demanding it shut down the war, posing a question -- "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" -- that resounds to this day.
Now, three decades later, Kerry steps before the crowd -- still, at 59, a bit the preppy in his jeans, sweater and sports coat. He seems not merely tall but elongated, his face pulled down, his hair coiffed up -- the shaggy bloodhound of the American political battlefield. There's no ovation; the room is filled less with true believers than with nervous shoppers.
And Kerry takes them right back to 1968. The ship bringing him home from Vietnam is docking off the California coast. It is June 5, "the radio is crackling" and he hears Robert Kennedy's victory speech -- and a few minutes later, the news of Kennedy's shooting. Kerry evokes the idealism of the 1960s and contrasts it with a squalid present where every basic challenge -- global warming, universal health care, equal education -- goes unmet. It's standard liberal fare, but he serves it with just enough of the Kennedys' mythic overtones, in a speech at once wistful and biting, that the audience is rapt. "Not since the Romans," Kerry notes, "has any nation been so economically and militarily dominant." But with that power come responsibilities that the United States, under Bush, is utterly shirking.
Kerry makes the same case later that evening but in a more contested terrain, in a packed hall in Marion, Iowa, where Linn County Democrats have gathered to hear all three visiting candidates. Dean is the most flat-out anti-war, a position -- along with his previous 18 visits -- that has already endeared him to many Iowans. "I'm the only candidate who didn't support the president's resolution on Iraq," he says to boisterous cheering. But Dean chugs through his war opposition as just another of his exemplary stances, and then he's off to a list of other worthy causes. Gephardt is flat and unable to stir a crowd that plainly expects better. The former House Democratic leader comes with baggage -- he's the oldest face in the field, he failed to retake the House in four successive contests -- but the heaviest load of all is his embrace of the president's position on the war. The best he can muster is a dispassionate analysis of the need for multilateralism: We cannot abandon the United Nations, we could set a bad precedent by waging preemptive war, we need the help of other nations, we need the moral high ground. He conveys no urgency save that of his ambition. The crowd is silent.
Kerry is the mystery here: He voted for the resolution yet has spoken consistently against the preemptive and unilateral war that Bush is threatening. Now, Kerry turns to the war, as he did that morning, by talking of America's vast power and what is still our need for interdependence above all in meeting the threat of nuclear proliferation. He marvels at the president's proclivity for estranging allies, and concludes his catalog of Bush's folly with the simplest possible declaration of an alternative policy. "We need to win some friends on this planet," he says. And the room goes wild.
Kerry continues, saying that he's not afraid to use force and that, should Iraq be in clear material breach of the United Nations' resolutions requiring it to disarm, he'd support joint action against the Baghdad regime. "I will do whatever is necessary to defend the United States," he declares. "But one thing I know to a certainty, in my heart, in my mind, in my gut: The United States of America should never go to war because it wants to go to war; it should only go to war because it has to go to war!"
Unexceptional, perhaps unexceptionable, declarations, but, at both the morning's rally and the evening's joint appearance, they strike the crowd with sledgehammer force. Both audiences are on their feet, cheering, some of them shouting. Alone among the candidates, Kerry has put words to the Democrats' fears that Bush has driven a wedge between America and its allies, that Bush's policies themselves threaten our values and security. Kerry's may be a complex position on the war, but unlike any of his fellow candidates, he has struck exactly the right tone (and not only on security issues). At the conclusion of both gatherings, a number of Dean backers still stand by their man, but others -- not to mention those who arrived undecided -- have been swayed to Kerry. Along the Des Moines-Dubuque corridor, at least, the word I hear some Democrats using to describe Kerry after these talks is "presidential."
Since September 11, and more so since the Bush buildup to an Iraqi war, the Democrats have been on a quest for a candidate with national-security bona fides and a keener strategic, moral and historical sense than the current administration's -- one that heeds, in Thomas Jefferson's phrase, the "decent opinion of mankind." In John Kerry, they plainly have such a candidate -- which is the main reason why, even at this early date, Kerry is the most likely candidate to win his party's presidential nomination.
In recent weeks, Kerry's become something of a magnet for surprises: The Boston Globe's revelation that his paternal grandfather was Jewish and the discovery over Christmas of a "small, early-stage cancer," as his surgeon termed it, in his prostate gland. (The cure rate for prostate cancer at this stage is about 95 percent.) At the Feb. 11 news conference where he disclosed the disease and discussed his subsequent surgery, Kerry dismissed questions that he'd misled the Globe when asked about his health 10 days previous, saying that at that time he'd not yet contacted family members or decided entirely on which course of treatment he'd follow. That's hardly a guarantee that the Matt Drudges of the world won't go after his credibility, particularly because his position on the Iraqi war has been shifting some. But the level of detail Kerry revealed during what was a masterful press-conference performance should provide some serious inoculation against any charges that he'd been deceiving voters. On balance, it's unlikely that these events will slow Kerry's momentum.
Among the Democrats, this is the season for tough doves. Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), the former chairman of the Senate Committee on Intelligence, has been feeling out a candidacy, as has Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), the ranking Democrat on the Committee on Foreign Relations. Also testing the waters is former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), who can boast of his work on the Hart-Rudman Commission, which predicted such attacks as those of 9-11 and recommended a series of homeland-security policies that the administration has still failed to put in place. As Michael Tomasky reports elsewhere in this issue [see "Meet Mr. Credibility," Michael Tomasky, page 30], former Gen. Wesley Clark, a onetime NATO commander, is taking soundings, too. Yet unlike Kerry, who began quietly working on his bid shortly after the Supreme Court handed the White House to Bush, each of these is late to the game. Some have been out of the game for a long time; some need a lot of help finding their way in.
Kerry and his potential rivals hold four distinct tough-dove viewpoints: that America can and must do a better job of fighting terrorism, al-Qaeda particularly; that America faces graver and more immediate security threats than those posed by Saddam Hussein; that Bush's preoccupation with Hussein has weakened the nation's capacity to combat al-Qaeda, North Korea and other threats as well; and that the administration's indifference to multilateralism, international law and any form of globalism not dictated by the United States has alienated just about every other nation on the planet and thus imperiled our safety. In a speech he delivered at Georgetown University on Jan. 23, Kerry decried Bush's "belligerent and myopic unilateralism," calling instead for what he termed a "progressive internationalism." Much of that new doctrine would look a lot like our most recently departed one from the closing years of Bill Clinton's presidency, when the United States intervened for humanitarian and strategic reasons in the former Yugoslavia, tried to negotiate a Middle East settlement, and relied upon and bolstered a range of international institutions.
Kerry has served on the Foreign Relations Committee since he was first elected to the Senate in 1984. In the mid-1980s, he played a key role there in exposing the Iran-Contra scandal and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International's criminality. And in 1997, he authored The New War, in which he argued that the United States was not ready for the security threats, often stateless in origin, endemic to the new world order.
Kerry's invariably careful positioning sometimes seems painfully predictable (or even parodistic -- "Americans deserve better than a false choice between force without diplomacy and diplomacy without force," he said at Georgetown). He can come across as too clever by half. His highly nuanced speech against the resolution authorizing George Bush Senior to start the Gulf War in 1991 has now been bookended by his highly nuanced speech for last fall's resolution authorizing W. to intervene in Iraq. Had he opted to vote "no," Kerry told me, "it would have been a 'no, but.' Or, you could vote, 'yes, but.'" Either way, Kerry says, he wanted to prod the White House to go to the United Nations. "I went to New York," he says, "sat with the Security Council members and heard them say with clarity, 'We understand the severity of the proliferation problem, and if the U.S. proceeds appropriately, we're prepared to be part of their effort.'" Hussein, Kerry adds, has a history of major miscalculation and needs to be rid of his weapons of mass destruction -- if he can be shown to have them or if he's otherwise clearly in breach of the UN resolution. (In the wake of Secretary of State Colin Powell's Feb. 6 presentation to the UN Security Council, which Kerry called "compelling," and absent a sudden Iraqi embrace of disarmament, Kerry said he'd support U.S. military action -- adding that it was "also incumbent on the Bush administration to maximize international support" in that venture.)
However genuine Kerry's belief in the need to keep the force option open in Iraq, his electoral need to keep that option open is no less genuine. After 9-11, no Democrat perceived as unwilling to use force stands a chance -- especially if he is a Massachusetts liberal.
Call Kerry those dread two words and he has a response at the ready. Much as he says he admires the 1988 Democratic candidate for president, he's no Michael Dukakis. Kerry fought in Vietnam, worked as a criminal prosecutor, voted for welfare reform, supported trade legislation, backed the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act on deficit reduction -- and has a proven record of fighting back when his opponents go on the attack.
For all his deviations, though, Kerry's liberal credentials are very much in order. He's a longtime opponent of capital punishment and he called for public financing of campaigns in his first year in the Senate. His lifetime pro-labor voting record on the AFL-CIO's scorecard is 91 percent. Kerry supports not just raising the minimum wage but indexing it to the cost of living, and his economic stimulus proposal calls for cutting the payroll tax -- the most progressive solution to be put on the table. He also favors card-check recognition for unions. Indeed, on issues affecting the working poor, his record and program are as good as they get.
On matters environmental, they're even better. Kerry's lifetime score on the League of Conservation Voters index is the highest in the Democratic pack. He's led the fight to defeat oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and, like the state of California, he is demanding that 20 percent of America's electricity be produced by 2020.
On matters of trade and finance, though, Kerry is a Clinton Democrat after all. He's supported every major piece of trade legislation of the past 15 years, though in last year's fast-track battle, he authored an unsuccessful amendment that sought to reduce corporations' abilities to undermine state environmental laws by suing the states in closed-door trade tribunals.
Kerry came to the Senate around the time that Boston's hi-tech corridor, Route 128, was taking off, and he's been the champion of hi-tech economics ever since, as his position on indexing stock options makes clear. "For a start-up that could create jobs," he tells me, "the only method it may have early on to attract that professor from Cal Tech or MIT is to give an option. I think you'd want to be very careful before you started squeezing those companies."
Mixing a dash of Bob Rubin here and Bob Reich there, Kerry has gained clear entry to at least three of the Democrats' four financial power centers: Wall Street, the hi-tech sector and unions. (The fourth, of course, is Hollywood, where he'll doubtless have some entry, too.) Kerry's in a good position to compete with Gephardt and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) for the backing of unions outside the manufacturing sector, where Gephardt's trade policies still give him a leg up. "Gephardt is a neighbor, but he doesn't have an edge," says Jane Corderman, the state coordinator for Iowa's largest AFL-CIO-member union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. "Kerry shares our values. His positions sound well thought-out and articulate."
Kerry comes to the race with two additional financial advantages. First, by resolutely shunning any political action committee contributions in all four of his Senate campaigns, he already possesses the best individual-donor list of any Democratic presidential hopeful. Kerry raised more than $10 million off that list in his 1996 battle against challenger Bill Weld, the popular Republican whom Massachusetts voters had re-elected governor two years prior. Nor has Kerry been shy about expanding that list since '96; his longtime friend and consultant John Marttila estimates that it's worth $15 million today.
Second, Teresa Heinz -- widow of ketchup heir Sen. John Heinz (R-Penn.) and Kerry's wife since 1995 -- is worth an estimated three-quarters of a billion, and Kerry has not been shy about dipping into that fortune when he's had to. In the closing weeks of the '96 campaign, with Weld ads swamping the airwaves and Weld surging to a narrow lead just 10 days out, Kerry put $1.7 million of his own money into the campaign to stay competitive on the air.
By the account of most observers, though, what turned the race was Kerry himself. (Kerry's toughness as a campaigner is often underrated.) The two candidates faced off in eight hour-long debates in the course of the year, and Kerry went into the final one trailing slightly but determined to dispel whatever advantage Weld still held by virtue of the Republican's anti-tax position. He hammered at Weld repeatedly to make him spell out which programs he'd cut to balance out his tax cuts; Weld was unable to respond. Kerry also linked Weld to the national party of then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). Polls showed public opinion turning around after the debate, and one week later, Kerry won by a healthy 7 points.
Not all the candidates currently or potentially in the Democratic field are tough doves, of course. Dean -- and, should he enter the race, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) -- are more traditional doves. Kerry seems to be calculating that a number of liberals will finally opt to support him rather than divert their votes to such obscure and purist candidates. On the other side of the field, far more than Gephardt, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) is a hawk, not to mention the only candidate disinclined to level populist attacks on Bush's plutocratic-plus economics. Outside the Democratic Leadership Council and center-right Jews, however, it's hard to foresee any significant number of Democrats flocking to Lieberman's banner.
A more serious challenge comes from Edwards, on the theory that the one other thing the Democrats need in a candidate, besides credibility on national security, is a southerner. But Edwards is still a one-term senator who's run for office just once in his life. The term I heard three of his Iowa supporters use in describing him was "youthful." Whether youth -- or, more precisely, total inexperience on security issues -- is really an unqualified asset in a nation that still fears for its safety is highly doubtful. Edwards looks more to be a plausible running mate than the eventual presidential nominee. (Depending on how large the security issue is looming in the summer of next year, someone such as Clark might be a plausible running mate, too.)
Finally, besides his positioning and his bankroll, Kerry brings one further asset to his run for president. To call it "campaigning ability" is to trivialize it, but whatever we choose to term it, Kerry's current capacity to take what Democrats -- what Americans -- are feeling, and to voice it in the clarified, dramatized and elevated form that gifted political leaders can sometimes achieve, is far beyond anything his fellow candidates (much less the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.) are capable of. He is campaigning now at the top of his game. "John is in the right place in his life," says Thalia Tsongas Schlesinger, twin sister of the late Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-Mass.) and a longtime Democratic activist and Kerry friend. "At various points, you see candidates who aren't ready to make that leap. John is absolutely ready."
If the economy comes roaring back, and all the secondary consequences of a war with Iraq prove positive, of course, it doesn't matter in the slightest how Kerry or any Democrat campaigns. But if Bush's fantasy remedies fail to cure our real-world ills, we may well come to that moment in the fall of 2004 when a nervous right trains its guns on Kerry's unfitness for the post of commander in chief. And the moment when Kerry responds by talking about his war record, and perhaps even asks the president to explain his (spent chiefly AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard), and that of his vice president (who needed five separate deferments to keep him far from Vietnam).
In theory, I suppose, this is not as a liberal would have it. In practice, I don't know a single liberal who'd fail to grasp the tactical majesty of the moment -- or who'd respond to it with anything less than whoops of delight.