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Senator Facing-Both-Ways (February 18, 2004)

Across the last 30 years it’s hard to think of a Democratic candidate seemingly assured of his party’s nomination who has had less of a baptism of sewage in the primaries than Senator John Kerry. Normally a front-running candidate can expect a roughing up from his sparring partners. But Dean drew all the fire, with Clark as prime diversion and Kucinich as the small white hope of the progressive crowd. So Kerry’s very spotty record has been allowed to remain in decorous seclusion. 

Most Democrats consider Kerry’s record as irrelevant and view those with the bad taste to excavate it as active subverters of a righteous cause. But Karl Rove, Bush’s political commissar, will not be so polite. 

Kerry reminds one of no one so much as Mr. Facing-Both-Ways, in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. 

Kerry was elected to the US senate in 1984 and in his first term ventured onto some interesting and politically perilous terrain, with hearings into the scandal-ridden CIA-linked bank BCCI, and into the arms-for-cocaine contra scandals in Central America. In the end he lost his nerve and the hearings ultimately floundered to an inconclusive close. It was the last spark of vigor in a senatorial career of singular blandness and timidity. 

Already in the 1980s this supposed Massachusetts liberal (always an oversold species) supported the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction act, a dagger in the heart of social programs. Kerry later renewed his commitment to the war on the poor by backing Clinton’s onslaught on aid to poor mothers and their children and more recently still, voting for the Bush tax cuts. In the Clinton years Kerry positioned himself as one questioning the efficacy of affirmative action. 

With the first Gulf war at the start of the 1990s Kerry changed positions so rapidly his staff grew dizzy with the effort of keeping up with their boss’s gyrations. He finally voted against authorizing the war, but almost immediately issued a press release supporting the invasion. The 2003 war found Kerry voting with the Bush administration, only to cast himself in the early primary season as an opponent. 

Kerry voted for Clinton’s omnibus crime bill and for Clinton’s Counter-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act which set the template for Bush’s Patriot Act, which Kerry also voted for. 

Kerry had indulged himself in some dutiful populist rhetoric against Big Oil, the drug companies, the HMOs and “the influence peddlers.” Given his overall record, these burbles are not to be taken seriously, as anything beyond campaign small-arms fire countering the occasional populist talk of John Edwards, his sometime rival on the primary trail. 

The Kerry campaign has the enduring benefit of the vast fortune of Mrs. Kerry, the former Teresa Heinz, the tumultuous child of Portuguese imperialism. Mrs. Kerry can use her money to run issue ads. Her interest in environmental issues has been mostly expressed through her Heinz Foundation whose board until very recently was adorned by that hero of free-market enviros, Ken Lay of Enron. 

The Heinz Foundation put Ken Lay in charge of their global-warming initiative. When Enron went belly up, the Foundation stuck by their man: “Whatever troubles he had at Enron, Ken Lay had a good reputation in the environmental community for being a business man who was environmentally sensitive. When someone does wrong in one past of their life, it doesn’t mean they can’t do good in another part of their life.” 

It’s the kind of sublime indifference to the messy realities of politics and life that is now inspiring Democrats to rally behind Kerry, under the vacant banner, Anybody But Bush. 

Already Kerry has had to issue stentorian denials of fooling with an intern, identified as Alex Polier. No, it’s not that sort of problem or a bid to prise the gay vote loose from Howard Dean. Alex is a woman, who interned at AP and had enough contact with Kerry for her father to say the junior senator from Massachusetts is a sleazeball, a view that seems to be held by some other women who have fallen, albeit briefly, under the spell of the senator’s close-set eyes and jutting chin (surgically shortened). Morgan Fairchild says Kerry’s favored positions in their close-up encounters were any in which he could gaze in the mirror at himself. If Kerry’s denial turns out to have holes in it, we’ll be off and running along the Clinton Memorial Boulevard, with all the familiar diversions, detours and blind alleys. 

From the cold-eyed CounterPunch perspective, Kerry seems a frail vessel for Democratic hopes. His recent senatorial record is devoid of achievement, and he exudes a kind of reverse charisma. Even when he’s on camera in those endless debates we find ourselves looking over his shoulder in search of someone more interesting to listen to. Edwards would surely be a better bet. In contrast to Teresa’s evident disquiet whenever her husband comes within touching range, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards actually seem to like each other, and besides, we have an affection for trial lawyers, who have a vocational disrespect for rich corporations. He’s a better speaker and quick on his feet. 

Mirroring the bankruptcy of their own ideas liberal Democrats are reserving their most strenuous political energies for the task of trying to persuade Ralph Nader not to run. The Nation’s editors printed an open letter urging him to bow out. It’s hard to think of anything more likely to prompt Nader to stay in. To his austere puritan temperament the curses of the respectable political classes are pleasing reminders that he must be on the right track. 

The left used to laud war shirkers and deprecate “heroism.” Now most of them snigger at George Bush’s positively Quaker-like refusal even to turn out for an Air Force physical in Alabama back in the early 70s and laud the medal-flaunting Kerry who insisted to Tim Russert three years ago on Meet the Press that yes, he had committed war crimes in Vietnam. The left used to revel in the naming of CIA operatives. Now they solemnly deplore the Bush White House’s breach of security in outing Valerie Plame and call for stiffer penalties for such breaches in the future. 

The left… there are some with backbone, but mostly they’re content to rally behind the front runner of the hour, keep their mouths shut and order everyone else to do likewise. 

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