Kerry, nominee by default

Posted: Jan 30, 2004 12:00 AM

The surreal thing about the Democratic presidential race is that Senator John Kerry, a man who until now has failed to inspire the slightest enthusiasm, a man who was all but written off, has come out of nowhere to dominate the field. Why?

The answer has far less to do with John Kerry himself than with the precipitous implosion of Howard Dean and the timing of his fall -- right before the important Iowa contest -- as well as the striking weakness of the other candidates.

Kerry is the gratuitous beneficiary of a process of elimination and Democratic voters on the rebound, seeking sanity in a relationship after breaking up with the volatile Dean. It would be one thing if John Kerry had been an unknown who rode in on his white horse to salvage the party. But he has been around for a long time.

Democrats obviously sensed the anemia of their slate, especially on defense issues. Why else would some of them have convinced political neophyte Wesley Clark to try to make the highest office in the land an entry-level position? But early on Clark exhibited egotistical and untrustworthy tendencies, not to mention ambiguity about his authenticity as a member of the Democratic Party. He may have been the shortest-lived, bright shining (four) star in recent presidential campaign history.

Senator Joe Lieberman chose the unenviable path of challenging the liberal dogma. To be sure Lieberman is a liberal; at least he proved his leftist bona fides as Al Gore's running mate in 2000. But he did the right thing with Iraq. Such behavior, however, is punished, not rewarded, by the political left. Lieberman was toast the second he made clear, unlike Senator Kerry, that he would not attempt to wiggle out of his vote authorizing the Iraq war resolution.

Howard Dean was the vehicle through which the anti-war, anti-Bush crowd would vent its rage. But when he made an embarrassing spectacle of himself one too many times, even the media peeled away from him, dragging with them all but the Kool-Aid drinkers. Once Dean's irascibility and instability were on display for all to see, he was history, beyond redemption, just as surely as Senator Eagleton was as VP candidate in 1972, when word circulated about his electric shock treatments.

In his demise, though, Dean would become Kerry's involuntary benefactor because a large number of the less committed Dean supporters were looking for a new, less strident champion to carry their anti-war, anti-Bush banner. After scores of straight-faced denials that he'd truly intended to authorize the war resolution against Iraq unconditionally, and innumerable, scathing denunciations of President Bush (ala regime change), Kerry finally persuaded Dean's disaffected soldiers that he was a legitimate Dean surrogate without the baggage.

Had Dean had the decency of uncorking his mania just a few weeks earlier, Senator John Edwards might have had a better chance to perfect and project his populist wares. Some in the press and elsewhere were convinced Edwards' meteoric rise in Iowa was a harbinger of greater things to come, but I was not similarly impressed by his showing there.

His performance was largely due to Gephardt's union voters deciding as a block that their man was unelectable and that they would side with the other candidate who'd been truest to their protectionist demands. This groupthink would not be -- and was not -- transferable to other states, as we saw in New Hampshire. Edwards has been smooth and might be a formidable opponent for President Bush. But he hasn't shown the requisite "anti" credentials to win the hearts of the base, and it's unlikely he will. You see, it was not Dean's "anti" message that did him in -- quite the contrary. It was his scariness -- finally magnified by the microscope of a previously friendly media that had come to believe he was a walking Chernobyl.

All in all, serendipity has been Senator Kerry's new best friend. These unexpected factors came together to make this singularly uninspiring, northeastern liberal an overnight phenomenon. As proof that he's taken the torch from Dean we need look no further than his newfound image as a man with fire in his belly. His rallies have even picked up energy; energy and excitement are hardly a natural fit for John Kerry, but he nevertheless appears to have acquired them for now.

So I believe that absent some extraordinary, unforeseen occurrence, Kerry will be the default nominee who in the end will owe more to Howard Dean than anyone else, for his fortuitous reversal of fortune.