Is Kerry moving left?

Posted: Sep 16, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- To the astonishment and dismay of Democratic politicians, John Kerry over the last weekend appeared to have forgotten his opponent for president. He did not seem to realize that he was running against George W. Bush, not Howard Dean. That was an understandable conclusion to be drawn from the Democratic nominee's course over four days.

Last Friday, Sen. Kerry abruptly returned to the safely buried gun control issue by decrying President Bush for permitting the assault weapons ban to end. On Saturday, he addressed the Congressional Black Caucus with a liberal harangue. On Sunday, Kerry rested. On Monday, Kerry was back boosting gun control, scolding Bush for letting the assault weapons ban expire at midnight.

 Only two explanations are possible, and neither is reassuring to worried Democrats. Kerry could be making a conscious, though counterproductive, decision to reassure his liberal base. Or, he could be trapped by the calendar of events -- talking gun control because a deadline had been reached and talking civil rights because the Black Caucus invited him. Democratic strategists are particularly concerned by the latter explanation, suggesting a mindless campaign.

 The anxiety created by Kerry's return to gun control is concealed by the facade of serenity among Democrats. Their actual concern was exposed by Democratic activist Paul Begala, who has been assailed for advising the Kerry campaign while appearing as my co-host on CNN's "Crossfire." He said on Monday's program: "Anyone who's worried that I'm secretly running the Kerry campaign can rest easy . . . As an avid hunter and gun owner myself, I think Kerry's move is a political mistake, because Republicans are now going to try to scare hunters."

 Kerry's emphasis on gun control contradicted not only Begala but also Begala's former boss, Bill Clinton. In his memoir, President Clinton names gun control as a principal cause of the 1994 Democratic election debacle. He asserts that "the Brady Bill (for screening of gun purchasers) and the assault weapons ban inflamed the Republican base voters and increased their turnout."

 A consensus of Democratic leaders believes that in 2000, gun control delivered West Virginia -- and with it, the presidency -- to George W. Bush. That view is not limited to Clintonite self-styled centrists but extends to champions of the Democratic left. Last December, when former Vermont Gov. Dean was riding high for the presidential nomination, he declared: "I am tired of coming to the South and fighting elections on guns, God and gays."

 Kerry advisers have recognized what Clinton and Dean were saying. That's why the aloof New England aristocrat emerged this year as a gun-toting outdoorsman. Anybody dedicated to keeping guns from their fellow Americans is not going to vote for Bush. Some officials of the National Rifle Association have told me that their membership is not entirely happy with the Bush administration, raising the prospect of defections to Kerry.

 Beyond the gun issue, nobody thinks Kerry's problem is lack of support from the left. Yet, his Black Caucus speech touched all the liberal bases and then played the race card. He quoted W.E.B. DuBois, the black leader who ended his career by joining the Communist Party and going into exile, calling African-Americans "a nation within a nation." Reinforcing DuBois, Kerry pledged "to end the division between the fortunate America and the forgotten America."

 One well-placed Democratic partisan telephoned Kerry campaign headquarters to ask why in the world the campaign was moving left at this critical point. He was told that they were not taking such an illogical step and that he should wait and see as the campaign unfolds.

That appraisal seems honest, but it is not reassuring to sophisticated Democrats. If John Kerry's course last weekend was determined by events that happened to be on the calendar, he has no victory plan. George W. Bush's potential weakness seems to be starting a conflict in Iraq that has cost the lives of over 1,000 U.S. troops and shows no sign of abating. It is not easy for a Democrat to exploit that issue, but raising the peril of terrorists buying assault weapons at gun shows in rural America is not a good start.