Monday, September 26, 2005

Kerry’s Attacks on Bush May Prove to Be a Two-Edged Sword

By Stuart Rothenberg

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (D) came out swinging recently against President Bush, but it’s unclear whether he’s simply still fighting the last war - the ’04 presidential campaign - or positioning himself for 2008.

Minutes after Bush finished his Sept. 15 address to the nation promising action to help the people of the Gulf Coast, Kerry distributed a terse, five-sentence reaction that began, "Leadership isn’t about a speech or a toll-free number. Leadership is about getting the job done."

Unlike Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose reaction at least complimented the president for acknowledging "where our government failed in the rescue effort" and talked about "Americans everywhere ... coming together," Kerry sounded embittered and contemptuous, and almost as if his press release was written even before Bush delivered his remarks.

A few days later, speaking at Brown University, Kerry lambasted the Bush administration’s "pattern of incompetence and negligence" and blamed it for "a truly systematic effort to distort and disable the people’s government."

The next day, a report in the Providence Journal said the Senator "intends to become more partisan and speak out more forcefully against the Bush administration as the 2006 midterm election cycle begins in earnest."

What’s Kerry up to with his attacks? Has he decided to try to become the point man for the crowd?

Kerry insiders dismiss the suggestion that he is "moving left" to carry the banner of his party’s liberal wing. They note, quite rightly, that he was never the preferred candidate of the party’s bomb-throwers. But they don’t doubt that he is trying to send a message about who he is.

The Massachusetts Senator took plenty of criticism following his 2004 White House loss, including complaints from some Democrats that he failed to hit back quickly when attacked by Republicans and that he allowed himself to be branded as a flip-flopper by the Bush campaign.

In coming out swinging on issues from health care to Iraq, Kerry hopes to show he’s a fighter who has and will continue to take on the president. And by returning to traditional Democratic themes - and to topics that he addressed before and during his unsuccessful presidential bid - Kerry hopes to remind onlookers that he’s been a consistent advocate for Democratic values.

And Kerry isn’t just talking a good game. He’s putting his money where his mouth is.

Since he was defeated in November, Kerry has been pouring money into Democratic causes, ranging from the Democratic National Committee and Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ($1 million each) to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Democratic candidates for office and state parties. He’s also using his e-mail list to raise money for candidates.

But if Kerry supporters believe they are building a grass-roots effort and demonstrating a commitment to "retail" politics by bankrolling and raising funds for Democrats, I think they may be in for a rude awakening.

I don’t doubt that Kerry’s party efforts are appreciated. But they aren’t likely to win him much support for ’08.

Kerry won the Iowa caucuses because he was viewed by state Democrats as the "most electable" challenger to Bush, not because he excited them. The Massachusetts Democrat’s defeat last November shot a huge hole through that electability argument, and that hole will be impossible to repair.

If "electability" is a big concern to Democratic caucus attendees and primary voters in 2008, Kerry isn’t likely to be the beneficiary.

The major problem with Kerry’s new, self-described partisan approach is that it sounds as if he is trying to continue the 2004 campaign indefinitely.

While the Senator and his allies may see his confrontational style as a sign of his "combativeness" and proof of his commitment to Democratic issues, the rest of us - or at least many who watch the daily ebb and flow of national politics - see Kerry recycling the same issues and attacks that failed to win him the presidency. That’s not a formula for him to be taken seriously by the media or to be embraced by party activists looking for a winning message.

Kerry also is in something of a bind on Capitol Hill. As some of his more liberal and combative Democratic colleagues ratchet up their criticisms of Bush, Kerry may be forced to do the same. If he doesn’t, he’ll appear weak-kneed or even irrelevant. But if he does, he could appear to be shrill and pandering.

Allies of the Senator shoot back that, unlike his 2004 running mate John Edwards, Kerry doesn’t need to prove he is relevant. He is, they note, a sitting U.S. Senator and one of the leaders of his party.

Well, there is no disputing that Kerry is a Senator, and I suppose he is one of the better known Democrats nationally. But I haven’t heard many Democrats clamoring for another Kerry candidacy, or for the Massachusetts Senator to become the Democrats’ point man to take on Bush.

Kerry certainly has many assets if he opts to run again, including contacts around the country, a powerful e-mail list, deep personal pockets, demonstrated fundraising strength and the experience of running a race for the White House.

But when Kerry bashes Bush, he’ll seem to many like someone who is bitter from his loss and aching to even the score with Republicans next time. Fairly or unfairly, people will see his attacks as personal and as more about his needs than the country’s. That’s not the way to run for president.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on September 22, 2005. Copyright 2005 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.