Here's a snapshot of Democratic Presidential politics in mid-2006: The press has declared Hillary's nomination inevitable, which of course means she's vulnerable. There's jockeying for the "anti-Hillary" role of "liberal Democratic" alternative to her continuing crass triangulation. There's a lot of interest in Feingold in progressive circles, and Al Gore is emerging as leading (if undeclared) candidate for the role.
With all this going on, the question becomes: Should John Kerry run again? There's evidence to suggest that maybe he should: his co-sponsorship of Feingold's censure amendment, a quick and tough response to criticism, and speechmaking strong enough to win over one of the tougher critics I know.
Kerry's facing a huge reservoir of liberal resentment for the 2004 campaign. That shows every time he writes for, or is written about, in The Huffington Post. Commenters lacerate him for the 2004 campaign's mistakes. I have, too - but I also look at him through the longer lens of his 30-plus year career. (In fact, I often get slammed as a Kerry-backer because I spoke with him and wrote up our conversation favorably. Those commenters don't usually mention that I also wrote up my Feingold conservation favorably.)
Signs of a new and far more effective Kerry style are emerging. Exhibit A: When Mary Cheney called him a "son of a bitch" for mentioning that she's gay in the debate (talk about phony conservative outrage!), the Kerry camp wasted no time hitting back hard through press secretary David Wade. Wade said that she ""flacked for the most anti-gay administration in history," adding that "she'd be more credible if she pushed dad's administration to support hate crimes legislation and equal rights for gay Americans."
(Mary's lasting contribution to civil rights will be to finally prove that lesbians are like everybody else - they can be horrible people, too.)
Ari Berman sees a changed man and a changed candidate, too, quoting the Boston Globe as saying the crowd was "wildly enthusiastic" about Kerry's recent speech defending dissent. You get kicked on your ass, you get knocked flat, you dust yourself off and say, OK, What did I learn from that?" Kerry told Berman. "I think I learned a lot."
Then there are the observations from a source most commentators don't have, or acknowledgely publicly: an ex-spouse. My first wife, a devout Buddhist, was disappointed by the 2004 campaign and felt the Democrats lack the passion and compassion they needed to lead. She heard Kerry's recent speech at American University and here's what she wrote to me:
(Sounds a lot better than last year's commencement speaker there, when our daughter graduated. We were stuck with Tim Russert - someday I'll write about that experience.)
I thought his speech was fabulous - inspiring, clear and to the point - and he came across more confident than I've ever seen him. I am wondering if he is just better in person than he is on TV (less "wooden") or if he has gotten better at getting across his message. He received lots of applause at various points, including a lengthy welcome, and a standing ovation at the end. I wish he were running for president now....or somehow getting himself back into the mainstream...
Here's an excerpt from Kerry's speech at American:
So ... should Kerry run again, or is he somehow too compromised? Progressives should remember that there was a time when they thought of Gore exactly as many of them now do about Kerry: resentful that he didn't wage a stronger campaign, disappointed that he seemed to succumb to the advice of inept consultants, depressed by his seeming indecisiveness.
I have come here today to reaffirm that it was right to dissent in 1971 from a war that was wrong. And to affirm that it is both a right and an obligation for Americans today to disagree with a President who is wrong today, policies that are wrong today, and a war in Iraq that weakens the nation.
I believed then, just as I believe now, that the best way to support the troops is to oppose a course that squanders their lives, dishonors their sacrifice, and disserves our people and our principles.
Gore seems to be a transformed man - so much so that the "Gore II" seems like a fresh face. Can Kerry undergo the same transformation? He seems to be walking the same road.
Would it be better for the Democrats and their core principles if Kerry held back and let Gore or Feingold carry the flag? I don't think so. Why not let them compete with each other for the honor? Why not see who can be most effective at delivering the party's message - its real message of justice and fairness - effectively?
Let a hundred flowers bloom, as another political player used to say. Is Kerry the candidate to back? I don't know. I like Gore a lot, and Feingold's taking a lot of good positions. But I also like what I see coming out of Massachusetts lately.
He's got money, mailing lists, a platform - and apparently he's got passion, too. I don't see any reason why he shouldn't run. Hopefully, the best candidate will emerge from the primaries.
There will come a time for Clinton opponents to coalesce around the 'anti-Hillary.' But for now, why not see what Kerry and his opponents can do? History will help decide the rest.