The troubled Northeasterner

Posted: Sep 16, 2004 12:00 AM

     WASHINGTON -- For four decades the Northeast, like the Senate almost forever, has not been fertile ground for producing presidents. And in the 10 or so minutes required to savor this column, the center of the American population will have moved another 4 inches south and west. According to the Census Bureau, it is moving thither 2 feet an hour -- almost 3.5 miles a year.

Four of the five Democrats elected president since the Second World War were from Southern or border states. And the Northeastern senator at least went to the border region, to the banks of the Ohio River, for yet another ``major'' speech clarifying his position(s) on Iraq. John Kerry chose the Cincinnati venue where in October 2002 President Bush made his case for using against Iraq the force that Kerry voted to authorize.

     In Cincinnati Kerry complained there was ``$200 billion for Iraq, but they tell us we can't afford after-school programs.'' Suppose Bush had responded:

Oh, so THAT is the problem. Why didn't you say so sooner? In the interest of wartime unity, I will support adding to the current $1 billion spent on after-school programs an additional $1.5 billion -- the amount you liberals say is needed. Now, senator, will you flip back to where you were 13 months ago when, talking about funding for the war, you said, we should 'increase it' and 'by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win'?

     Kerry might then have, as liberals are wont to do, upped the ante. While the nation was reeling from the horrors of Beslan and Baghdad, he promised a North Carolina audience that as president he would create a new ``Department of Wellness'' to deal with problems such as house mold.

     Better to talk about that menace than about those two votes he cast that seem to have been equally insincere. One authorized the use of force against Iraq. The second opposed $87 billion to fund coping with the consequences of force having been used. Kerry can say nothing in defense of the first vote that does not offend the intense Democratic activists who are disgusted by it. And he can say nothing in defense of the second vote -- his genuflection to those activists, made when Howard Dean was their pinup -- without offending an American majority.

     Last December, when Howard Dean was rampant and Kerry was mortgaging his house to keep his campaign afloat, the conservative National Review's cover featured a photograph of Dean and these words: ``Please nominate this man.'' Democrats' didn't, but they did nominate a casualty of the Dean Effect.

     Kerry also is a casualty of nuance-itis, which is a kind of house mold prevalent in the north wing of the Capitol. Senators -- unlike governors, who often sharpen issues -- are forever blurring things to manufacture legislative majorities. Partly for that reason, senators rarely become presidents.

     Regarding Kerry's reticence about his Senate years, Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform and a colonel in conservatism's infantry, has a theory. It is that Kerry is crippled by having spent his Senate years as a moon orbiting Ted Kennedy's sun.

     Until his 1980 failure to wrest the presidential nomination from Jimmy Carter, Kennedy, says Norquist, tacked occasionally toward the center to protect his national ambitions. But when 1980 permanently dashed those ambitions, he decided to become the Democrats' version of Ohio's Robert Taft, who in 14 years in the Senate (1939-53) became ``Mr. Republican,'' the standard by which conservatism was measured. Five years after Kennedy embarked on becoming the standard of liberalism, Kerry became Massachusetts' junior senator and essentially followed Kennedy's footsteps.

     Hence Kerry's incentive to urge the country to focus not on his 20 years of Senate service but on his four months in Vietnam. This urging elicited the Swift boaters' attacks and Kerry's lost August.

     Perhaps they provoked the counterattack -- the episode's origins, if not its nature, remain murky -- that was aimed at George W. Bush but hit CBS News broadside. About Bush's alleged dereliction of duties in the National Guard, Dan Rather is, as this is written, unmoved by the evident fraudulence of the documents that were supposed to support the allegations. And from Jonah Goldberg of National Review comes this perhaps germane observation:

On the second night of the Republican convention, Rather, perhaps determined to use some canned ad libs no matter how inapposite reality made them, declared that Arnold Schwarzenegger's speech had ``slapped (Bush's) opponent, Sen. John Kerry, around like a hockey puck." The number of times Schwarzenegger mentioned Kerry: zero.