Will another Massachusetts pol go down?

Posted: Feb 06, 2004 12:00 AM

With Teddy Kennedy, Paul Tsongas and Michael Dukakis, John Kerry is the fourth Massachusetts pol to seek the presidency since 1980.

Massachusetts pols have an ideological panache that wins them heart-thumping enthusiasm with the nation's leftist establishment, but tends to win them less favor with the broader electorate.

Kerry will be the Democratic nominee - no doubt. Lacking any victory anywhere, Howard Dean has imploded. Wesley Clark never ignited. Richard Gephardt and Joe Lieberman have left the field. John Edwards, a trial-lawyer smoothie, has no hope of closing Kerry's widening lead. The Democratic ticket could be Kerry-Edwards, Kerry-Hillary (unlikely), or (don't bet much against it) Kerry-Mark Warner.

Lest we forget, Kerry is Howard Dean but less shrill - though Kerry's valedictories following the New Hampshire and Super Tuesday primaries left one wondering how much less shrill he really is. Insufferably aloof and terminally soporific, Kerry's performance both nights was nevertheless hardly un-Deaniacal. Here is what he said a week ago:

"I have a message for the influence peddlers, for the polluters, the HMOs, the big drug companies that get in the way, the big oil and the special interests who now call the White House their home. We're coming, you're going, and don't let the door hit you on the way out!"

Kerry is unabashedly liberal. Asked in the final New Hampshire debate how he would respond to those who paint him as one of the most leftie Democrats in the Senate, he said he would say: "I fought in Vietnam, I was a prosecutor, I supported welfare reform, and I have been a hunter all my life." None of that alters the record, to which he frequently steers his audiences.

The left-wing Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) gives him a 93-percent-pure liberal lifetime voting record. Just nine senators meet or exceed that, and none by much. The ADA gives Kennedy (thus the comparatively conservative senator from Massachusetts) and Edwards 88s, and Lieberman a 76.

For much of the past year Lieberman has noted his determination not to "stand by and let this Democratic Party that I've belonged to all my life be taken back to (the political wilderness) where it was before Bill Clinton." Yet it's a question how consequential his effort was given his departure with his essential sense (columnist Richard Cohen terms him "a moderate in a party in no mood for moderation") to a different wilderness and the emergence of Kerry as the odds-on nominee.

For Kerry represents precisely the ideological wasteland in which so little Democratic presidential aspiration took root during the quarter-century pre-Clinton.

He emerged from service in Vietnam to associate in 1971 with Vietnam Veterans Against the War - a group glamorized by Jane Fonda - and to testify before Congress saying:

"(I seek to) destroy the last vestige of this barbaric war, to pacify our hearts, to conquer the hate and fear that have driven this country these last 10 years and more, so that when, 30 years from now, our brothers go down the street without a leg, without an arm, or a face, and small boys ask why, we will be able to say, "Vietnam" - the place where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning. ... To attempt to justify the loss of one American life in Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos by linking such loss to the preservation of freedom is the height of criminal hypocrisy, and it is that kind of hypocrisy which we feel has torn this country apart."

Since then, though he conveniently has voted on several sides of many issues, he has been reflexively, relentlessly, compulsively leftist: on defense spending, on the two Gulf Wars, on taxes, on intelligence, on Iraq, on one litmus social issue after another.

We are known partly by the company we keep.

A Teddy Kennedy protege, Kerry reinvigorated his lagging campaign with Kennedy's chief of staff and other recruits from Kennedy's kitchen cabinet. In key campaign moments Kennedy himself has appeared at Kerry's side. Kennedy and his cohort authored the principal class-warfare theme Kerry shrilly mouths at almost every campaign appearance.

Kerry says it's all President Bush's fault, of course. He blasts the rich and corporate big boys and special interests, and how Bush is in cahoots with them all - and never mind that Kerry stands among the Senate left's richest members and (according to one New York Times report) "has depended more heavily on affluent donors than the other leading Democrats." Talk about Howard Dean campaigning against D.C. insiders and then appointing an ultimate D.C. insider (and longtime Gore aide) to revamp his campaign; Kerry blasts "special interests" and then leads the pack in soliciting and accepting money from them.

So what's coming is a classic conservative-liberal confrontation. The last one pitted Bush I against Michael Dukakis. This time it seems likely to pit the more conservative Bush II against Kerry, known when first elected lieutenant governor (in 1982, in those dark Democratic years in the ideological wilderness) as more liberal than Dukakis.

Bush I blew Dukakis away. Will Bush II do the same to Kerry? Ideologically, the electorate is closely divided; even Alpha Al Gore ran ahead of Dubya in the popular vote. Some polling match-ups have Kerry running ahead of Bush. Singing his chill February song, Kerry's evident success in the nomination battle suggests it may be a long, long time from mid-Winter to November - until we know whether a Massachusetts pol will go down one more once.