WASHINGTON -- The Republican high command ought to be ecstatic over John Kerry's ascent toward the Democratic presidential nomination. His political profile should reassure George W. Bush's supporters: Massachusetts upper class, Vietnam antiwar protester, Mike Dukakis's lieutenant governor, Teddy Kennedy's protege, 95 percent liberal voter. Yet, ever since Kerry won in New Hampshire, Republican concern about President Bush's re-election has grown.
"I can see the pucker factor," said one GOP operative, using the old military slang term for an attack of gut-clenching fear. What he implies is that he and his colleagues are confronting the possibility of another Bush becoming a one-term president. Predictably, Republicans reacted to Sen. Kerry's success by pasting the liberal label on him. Why, then, the pucker factor?
First, because Kerry is an elusive target. Dukakis's old running mate showed in the hours after he was declared the New Hampshire winner that he is no Dukakis. Second, because Bush may be facing the bane of incumbent presidents: lack of credibility. That malady caused Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson not to seek another term and helped defeat Jimmy Carter and the senior George Bush for re-election.
All four of those one-term presidents were plagued by primary election opposition in their own party, a burden that George W. Bush does not bear. No 20th-century president unopposed for renomination was denied another term. Nevertheless, Bush is reeling from a double blow to his credibility.
Failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a political accident waiting to happen, became the first punch last week when resigned weapons inspector David Kay testified to Congress. The follow-up blow was the White House revelation that the new Medicare plan will cost one-third more than the president predicted (just as conservatives warned).
These setbacks for Bush followed the most ineffective State of the Union address in recent years by a president whose previous efforts were able to utilize that event. He submitted to the bureaucratic methods that turned the speech into a laundry list. His staff permitted the former baseball team owner to further clutter the speech with an irrelevant discourse about players using steroids. In the two weeks since then, the president has not seemed energized on the campaign trail.
Since nobody wants to say the emperor wears no clothes, worried Republican operatives talk not about raising up Bush but bringing down Kerry. Republican National Chairman Ed Gillespie, given the assignment of rolling out Kerry's liberal record, has come under private criticism by his GOP colleagues. They knock Gillespie, not for trying, but for failing to clearly expose Kerry as a compulsive liberal.
It's not easy. A few minutes after the television networks declared Kerry the New Hampshire winner, the senator said: "I've been a hunter all my life, and I'm a gun owner, and I've never thought of going hunting with an AK-47. I believe in the Second Amendment." When I told a Bush activist about these pro-gun comments, he wondered whether Kerry ever would say that publicly. In fact, he did make that statement publicly over CNN.
Kerry was answering a question by Judy Woodruff about his 20-year liberal voting record in the Senate. "We're going to have a heck of a good debate in this country," he said, adding to his gun comments, "and look, if balancing the budget is called liberal in America, let's go."
Most worrisome to Republicans is Kerry's war hero image while, in the words of one prominent Bush supporter, "our guy was drinking beer in Alabama" (where actually he was working on a losing Senate Republican campaign in 1972). Republicans are trying to negate Kerry's heroism with his postwar peace activism, but that approach is not working. In an interview with Kerry in New Hampshire, I asked if he ever regretted throwing away his medals (Silver Star, Bronze Star, Purple Heart). There was no regret, but he hastened to add: "I threw away my ribbons, not my medals."
This may be a case where the liberal is a sufficiently agile dodger to blur his past, and the Republicans must rely on George W. Bush. On Friday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan bridled at the thought of the president suffering a deficiency in credibility. But that in truth is the biggest problem he faces today.