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John Kerry's attention deficit disorder

By Orrin Judd
web posted March 15, 2004

In the varied analyses of John Kerry's prospects this Fall, there has been much comment about the fact that no sitting Senator has been elected president since John F. Kennedy, forty-plus years ago. Less frequently mentioned is that Senator Kerry's most recent predecessor in this unusual role, Bob Dole, thought it necessary to resign his Senate seat in order to wage a serious campaign.

On May 15, 1996, having secured the Republican nomination, Bob Dole stunned his rival, Bill Clinton, and even his own friends, when he announced:

"[I]'d just say, ladies and gentlemen, one of the qualities of American politics that distinguishes us from other nations is that we judge our politicians as much by the manner in which they leave office as by the vigor with which they pursue it. You do not lay claim to the office you hold, it lays claim to you. Your obligation is to bring to it the gifts you can of labor and honesty and then to depart with grace. And my time to leave this office has come, and I will seek the presidency with nothing to fall back on but the judgment of the people, and nowhere to go but the White House or home....Thank you. Thank you.

Six times -- six times I've run for Republican leader of the United States Senate and six times my colleagues, giving me their trust, have elected me, and I'm proud of that.

So my campaign for the president is not merely about obtaining office. It's about fundamental things, consequential things, things that are real. My campaign is about telling the truth, it's about doing what is right, it's about electing a president who's not attracted to the glories of the office, but rather to its difficulties. It's about electing a president, who once he takes office, will keep his perspective and remain by his deepest nature and inclination one of the people.

Therefore, as the campaign for the president begins in earnest, it is my obligation to the Senate and to the people of America to leave behind all the trappings of power, all comfort and all security.

So today I announce that I will forego the privileges not only of the office of the majority leader but of the United States Senate itself, from which I resign effective on or before June 11th. And I will then stand before you without office or authority, a private citizen, a Kansan, an American, just a man. [...]

Our campaign will leave Washington behind to look to America. As summer nears, I will seek the bright light and open spaces of this beautiful country and will ask for the wise counsel of its people, from the sea coasts of Maine and California to the old railroad towns in the Midwest to the verdant South, from the mountains of Colorado to the suburbs of Chicago, and in places in between known mainly to you who call them home.

I have absolute confidence in the victory that to some may seen unattainable; this is because I have seen victory and I have seen defeat and I know when one is set to give way to the other. And to concentrate upon the campaign, giving all and risking all, I must leave Congress that I have loved, and which I have been honored to serve -- many of my friends here today. And some might find it surprising, given the view that Congress has been my life, but that is not so. With all due respect to Congress, America has been my life.

And the very least a presidential candidate owes America is his full attention -- everything he can give, everything he has -- and that is what America shall receive from me."

If you can barely recognize Mr. Dole in those words, so much different than the usual Senate-speak with which he and his colleagues tend to abuse the English language, that's because the speech was largely written by the novelist Mark Helprin. But the reasons, stated and unstated, for which Mr. Dole resigned are the same as those for which Senator Kerry will certainly resign this Summer.

As a threshold matter, the image of Mr. Kerry that is already beginning to gel, and which will solidify quickly as Karl Rove begins to spend his millions, is of a hyper-cautious flip-flopper, slow to make a decision and then prone to second-guess himself, even to switch to the opposite position. Nor is it just the GOP driving this meme. Even the New York Times's February 26th endorsement of him, for the New York State primary, was as tentative as a kiss for a sister:

"Mr. Kerry, one of the Senate's experts in foreign affairs, exudes maturity and depth. He can discuss virtually any issue of security or international affairs with authority. What his critics see as an inability to take strong, clear positions seems to us to reflect his appreciation that life is not simple. He understands the nuances and shades of gray in both foreign and domestic policy. While he still has trouble turning out snappy sound bites, we don't detect any difficulty in laying down a clear bottom line. His campaigning skills are perhaps not as strong as his intellectual ones, but they are pretty good and getting better. Early in the race he alienated some audiences with brittle, patronizing lectures. But he has improved tremendously over the last few months. His answers are focused and to the point, and his speeches far more compelling.  [...]

A sense of balance comes through when he is talking. Unfortunately, so far in this campaign Mr. Kerry has shown little interest in being daring, expressing a thought that is unexpected or quirky on even minor issues."

If that's the most passion his amen corner can muster, he's in trouble already.

John KerryJust imagine what will be left of his public persona once the Bush campaign begins running a series of ads that shows him voting for things like the Iraq war resolution, the Patriot Act, No Child Left Behind, NAFTA, etc., and then criticizing them in the Democratic primaries, as Howard Dean dragged the race to the Left.  The new campaign finance laws, which require that annoying little break for the candidate whose campaign is running the ad to accept responsibility for it, held down the amount of negative campaigning in the primaries, but with Senator Kerry you can just pit his own record against his subsequent rhetoric. Is it really a negative ad when you show the other candidate denouncing himself? At the very least, President Bush certainly shouldn't have to worry about taking credit for just showing footage of Senator Kerry essentially criticizing himself. In his first campaign speech he even showed a willingness to talk full ownership of this line of attack, doing so with sufficient humor that it's not likely to work against him, when he referred to the Democratic field as : ."..an interesting group, with diverse opinions: They're for tax cuts and against them. They're for NAFTA and against NAFTA. They're for the Patriot Act and against the Patriot Act. They're in favor of liberating Iraq, and opposed to it. And that's just one senator from Massachusetts."

Less likely to appear in official campaign ads, but very likely to be a talking point for surrogates and a staple of cable news and talk radio is the implicit cowardice of clinging to the Senate job, instead of focussing on the presidential race.  Rush Limbaugh may be mostly preaching to the choir and Chris Matthews barking at policy wonks, but how long can the Kerry folks stand them harping on the idea that "If John Kerry actually thought he could win this race he'd work without a net"?  It might be one thing if the Senator had a reputation for being decisive, but since he doesn't this line of attack feeds off of, and reinforces, his weakness.

Meanwhile, if Mr. Kerry stays in the Senate not only is he likely to have more divergent votes and opinions to explain -- for example on a vital issue like a marriage amendment to the Constitution, but he would leave himself somewhat hostage to the Republican leadership, which could schedule important votes at times least convenient for his campaign.  As is, Mr. Kerry has only appeared on the Senate floor once this year -- for the voting on the assault weapons ban and gun manufacturer liability.  This absence will become an issue in its own right, but if he were to miss a vote on a hot button issue -- and, even worse, if that vote were as close as many are in this evenly divided Senate -- he'd get lambasted by his own allies.  An energy bill or a tort reform bill that passed by a margin of one vote could be directly attributed to him.  Can any campaign afford to leave that kind of power in its foe's hands?  It's hard to see how.

Lastly, the Senator is running -- as all challengers do -- as the outsider who will fight against "special interests."  Thus we nightly get the stock footage of him in his duck-hunting coat, chatting up factory workers in some Midwestern town. Setting aside for a moment the duplicity of this presentation, the last thing the Kerry campaign wants is for him to be pictured in a blue pinstripe suit, back in Washington, arguing for an obscure amendment to a boilerplate bill.  Best not to appear an interested party if you're claiming to oppose same.

For reasons then of substance, tactics, and imagery, continued service in the Senate works against John Kerry's best interests.  In fact, the case for resignation is so overwhelming that you just know there must be some reason the pundits aren't talking up the eventuality.  And there's the rub. 

Unfortunately for Mr. Kerry, the governor of Massachusetts just happens to be a Republican, Mitt Romney, and that means his replacement would tilt the Senate (currently divided 51 Republicans - 48 Democrats - 1 Jeffords) further to the GOP.  Even worse, with two popular Republican ex-governors to choose from -- William Weld and Paul Cellucci -- Mr. Romney would have an opportunity to appoint someone very likely to hold onto that seat for awhile.  At a time when the Democrats have abandoned any hope of retaking the House in 2004 and, due to retirements in the South, stand to lose at least a couple of seats in the Senate, this would be an especially unwelcome development, possibly placing both houses of Congress out of reach for the rest of the decade.

So John Kerry finds himself on the horns of a dilemma: if staying in the Senate decreases his chance of unseating George Bush, does he have the guts to accept the sacrifice of his Senate seat?  If he doesn't, then is the image of him as a cautious waffler a caricature or the truth? Setting aside merely political considerations, if he wasn't prepared to make the tough decision to leave the Senate, why did he run for President of the United States?  For, as Bob Dole said: "[T]he very least a presidential candidate owes America is his full attention."

Orrin Judd is co-proprietor of Brothers Judd, one of the most popular book and movie review web sites on the web, and Brothers Judd Blog.

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