Archive for Saturday, February 7, 2004

Kerry may rise above GOP attacks

February 7, 2004


You can write the Republicans' critique of John F. Kerry in your sleep: The Democrats' new star is a protege not only of Edward M. Kennedy, with whom he's served in the Senate for two decades, but also of Michael S. Dukakis, whom he served as lieutenant governor. He's not only a big-time liberal, he's also from Massachusetts, the spiritual home of big-time liberalism.

You've seen this movie trailer before. It first ran in 1988, when President Bush's father campaigned against Sen. Kerry's governor, the elder Bush portraying the shell-shocked Dukakis as an out-of-touch ideologue from the boutique precincts near Harvard Square. Bush the elder prevailed in that race, conducted against a backdrop of waving flags intended to symbolize the Massachusetts governor's veto of legislation forcing schoolchildren to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Now it is time to cite one of the great Greek thinkers of history -- not Dukakis, who in this season is teaching undergraduates at UCLA, nor even the late Paul E. Tsongas, the next Massachusetts Democrat to step into the presidential waters, but Heraclitus, who is best known for having said that you can't step into the same river twice. The river of Massachusetts politics has changed, despite all the talk you hear about gay marriage, a topic the Supreme Judicial Court put on the table this winter.

Remember that the last four governors of Massachusetts, no bastion of conservatism, have been Republicans, which is more than Kansas, one of the most Republican states in the Union, can claim. Massachusetts' current governor, Mitt Romney, is so compelling a figure that he's likely to be a strong contender for the GOP presidential nomination four years from now. (No one will say he's a stalking-horse for Ted Kennedy.) The state, moreover, has not been untouched by a taxpayers' rebellion that echoes across the political landscape still.

In the old days, New Englanders were regarded as flinty or, to be more precise, downright cheap. There's a strong strain of that left in the state. (And in its native sons, like me, at least according to my two daughters.)

In the old days, the word used to describe Bay Staters was Puritanical. There's still a lot of that left, too. (Trust me on this one. I was born in Salem.)

But the most important factor is that John Kerry is no more like Mike Dukakis than John F. Kennedy was like Paul Tsongas.

"The Republicans will go after him with everything they have," Dukakis said in a conversation the other afternoon. "John's capable of taking it and fighting back. Nobody will make the same mistake Mike Dukakis did ever again. We should have been ready. He will be."

The Dukakis mistake

The Mike Dukakis mistake is now well-known: Ahead by 17 points in the national polls and not a pugilist by nature, Dukakis let the GOP claims wash over him. Maybe he thought the critique unworthy of response, or maybe he was temperamentally not inclined to fight fiercely, or maybe he was too distracted, but the charges against him -- that he wasn't tough enough on crime or the communists, or that he wasn't willing to defend American values or America itself -- stuck. They're with him still.

"I didn't lose because I was a Massachusetts Democrat," Dukakis said. "I lost because I ran a lousy campaign."

Dukakis' successor as governor, William F. Weld, thinks the Massachusetts angle won't work in 2004 if Kerry wins the nomination. He knows Kerry well, having lost to him in a 1996 Senate race.

"The personal trumps all in a presidential race," said Weld, who now is a venture capitalist in New York City. "The glare is so hot that at the end of the campaign the candidates look like one of those New York Times Sunday magazine covers. They bring out every follicle. Any objective parameter like where you're from gets dissipated."

Weld was the sentimental favorite of even some Massachusetts liberals, who regarded Kerry as too glib, too programmed, too haughty, too remote, too cerebral, too complacent, too unfocused, too unctuous and too condescending for their tastes. In the end, after an epic series of debates, Kerry prevailed -- and changed.

"The aloofness and occasional appearance of talking down to people came through," said Weld, "and then was gone."

Well, not entirely gone, but not the most prominent part of the Kerry persona anymore. But Weld has a point.

From the spectators' gallery on Capitol Hill, Kerry sometimes seems overly introspective, overly cautious, overly analytical, overly willing to wallow in the complexity of it all. On the stump in Massachusetts in 1996, fighting for his political life and, in a way, with more on the line than he has today in the presidential contest, he was scrappy, even passionate. It's the outdoor John Kerry on display in 2004, not the indoor version.

Solid Democratic credentials

Over the weekend, former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont, the state that sends a Socialist to Congress, had a one-word put-down for his rival from New England: Republican. That's unlikely to stick, especially since Kerry has a higher lifetime ranking from the Americans for Democratic Action, a useful measure of a liberal voting record, than even Ted Kennedy.

But even Massachusetts Democrats aren't what they once were.

Dukakis was the guy who was pilloried for saying that the 1988 election was about competence, not ideology; he was famous in Massachusetts for his frugality and criticized for his willingness to believe that business executives were people, too. Tsongas was the guy who wanted to attack the deficit; he was famous for calling Bill Clinton a "pander bear."

There's one more. Consider John F. Kennedy, once the cautious congressman from Cambridge, now something of a liberal icon. But Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, Stuart Symington of Missouri, Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota and Lyndon B. Johnson of Texas all were positioned further to the left in the 1960 Democratic race than Kennedy of Massachusetts. There have been loads of Bay State liberals since then, to be sure, but the most recognizable lefty in Boston that year was Ted Williams.

David Shribman is a columnist for Universal Press Syndicate.

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