Over the past several weeks there has been perhaps no better surrogate for Barack Obama than Senator John Kerry. Aides to the Illinois Democrat admit that they are at once surprised and ecstatic with the prosecutorial zeal that the 2004 Democratic nominee has deployed on behalf of his successor.
In the past week alone, Kerry delivered a major address on counterterrorism in which he systematically ripped apart John McCain's foreign policy depth and understanding. He took to the airwaves to defend Obama against charges of celebrity, before turning in a highly praised performance on Meet the Press against Democrat turned Democratic-thorn Joseph Lieberman. All of which was topped off by Kerry's MC-ing at Obama's birthday party in Boston, where he delivered the most memorable line of the night:
"I don't know if you know this," said the Massachusetts Democrat. "John McCain is looking for someone for vice president who has more economic expertise than he does. So congratulations to all of you, you're on the short list."
The toughness, campaign experience, and media and political savvy has members of Obama's team gushing with gratefulness over having Kerry as a political henchman.
"He really is doing a great job," said Hari Sevugan, a spokesman for the Illinois Democrat. Added an aide who had worked on the 2004 campaign: "Kerry is a content and happy warrior for Obama. He's been an extraordinarily effective surrogate, on everything from finding an end to the war to beating the Republican attack machine. He's hit his stride on many levels."
It is a political adage of sorts that a candidate loses the political shackles only after defeat. Democrats, for instance, are prone to point to the post-2000 Al Gore and mutter: "if only." But associates of Kerry say it isn't fair to apply that same standard to the Senator.
"I probably disagree with that thesis a little," said Bob Shrum, the longtime Democratic consultant who advised Kerry in 2004. "First, he lost by an inch. Second, if you saw him in the debates with Bush this is a guy who is an extraordinary communicator. This was true in the period leading up to Iowa [in '04] when very few people thought he had a chance to win. I think he got shackled some by the research and the attempt to take some of the edge off after he had the nomination. But in the last several weeks when he was out on the road he was terrific."
And yet, as Shrum notes, it's in this election that Kerry has really hit his stride. During a speech at the Center for American Progress last Thursday, the Massachusetts Democrat made a succinct and powerful case that counterterrorism efforts had to move beyond the military. In the process he launched into McCain for misunderstanding the insurgency and various gaffes on the trail.
"When President Bush and Sen. McCain refuse to put Iraq into the broader struggle, their mistakes and misstatements only build on each other," said the 2004 Democratic nominee. "If you don't understand the surge and what happened, you can't make the right judgments about the future."
It just so happened that, at roughly the same time Kerry was delivering his address, the McCain campaign was launching its now infamous "Celeb" ad, comparing Obama to the likes of Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. The change in focus did not trip him up. Placed alongside Arizona Senator Jon Kyl, for a segment on David Gregory's Race for the White House, Kerry managed to get the Republican to acknowledge that the McCain campaign was dipping in the irrelevant.
KERRY: I think those are gross ads, they are sort of down in the gutter, both for their inaccuracy, as well as what their tone is. And I think Barack Obama is simply trying to say, look, they're trying to scare you, and that's exactly what they're trying to do, that's what they did in 2004.
GREGORY: Senator Kyl, did they go beyond that? Did Obama go beyond that and try to inject race?
KYL: My goodness, first of all, to criticize having Britney Spears mentioned in an ad the way that John just did, it must be getting under someone's skin.
KERRY: Well, what's the issue, Jon?
KYL: I don't think...
KERRY: Tell me what the issue is about Britney Spears. What does she have to do with health care, with employment, with foreign policy? You tell me what she has to do with the national dialogue, please.
KYL: She's got nothing to do except her...
KERRY: Well, there you go. You just admitted it. Why is she in an ad against Barack Obama?
GREGORY: All right.
Two days later, Kerry took the case to another McCain surrogate, Joe Lieberman. During a segment for Meet the Press he pummeled the presumptive Republican nominee for offering nothing substantive in his campaign and for proposing an energy policy that was, in Kerry's words, "an absolutely fraudulent offering to America." When Lieberman tried to get a word in, he was consistently shot down.
"My buddy here is filibustering this morning," said Lieberman.
"I think he did a better job on Meet the Press then almost everybody I have recently seen," said Shrum. "[John] doesn't mind in the least engaging as he did with Lieberman. He is not sitting there worrying about what people are going to think of him. And he really understands the issues in a way few people in politics do. There is no question that... if he had not run in '04 he would almost be a lock for the vice presidential nomination. That's the irony. Had he not run at all he would be the clearest possible choice for VP this year. But it would be unprecedented to pick the person who was nominee of the party four years earlier for vice president, though it would be fun if it happened. Some of those swift boaters would crawl out from their muck, only this time they will get beaten back."
There is, other Democrats acknowledge, a lot that Kerry could bring to the table: foreign policy gravitas, name recognition, prior vetting and, most significantly, knowledge of the campaign process. But there are obvious downsides as well, starting with the fundamental turn-the-page message of the Obama campaign. At point, it seems the near-president is content to help Obama achieve what he could not as a surrogate, not an insider.
"Senator Kerry's early endorsement of Obama was based on Senator Kerry's desire to help turn that vision into reality," said Whitney Smith, a spokesperson for Kerry. "As president, Barack Obama will promote renewable energy, pass a comprehensive health care program, and provide relief to struggling families facing unemployment and foreclosure. Senator Kerry is proud to work in this election to get Barack Obama to the White House and build a stronger Democratic majority in Congress."