Kerry at a Crossroads
With the nomination long since decided and the vice-presidential pick probably just days away, it's a good time to think about where the Democratic Party has come over the last year, and where they're going not just in 2004, but probably for the next decade-plus.
I don't think many people saw it this way at the time, but the Dems presented the country with a pretty interesting menu among the six most viable presidential contenders this year. On one side, you had the throwback choices: Dick Gephardt the robo-populist, and Joe Lieberman the anachronist moderate. Gephardt's free-spending paleoliberalism features a pander for every audience, and would have fit right in--and, in fact, did--with every loser Democrat from the dark years of the 1980s, when the Republicans ate their lunches with numbing regularity. Lieberman I think wanted to be the John McCain of the Democrats, but while McCain has made a name for himself as a maverick, Holy Joe just looks like a wuss in his efforts to make nice with the Republicans despite the political toilet swirlie they gave him in the 2000 election. A more sympathetic way to look at it would be to say that Lieberman's accommodationist stance would have been just fine in the days when Dwight Eisenhower led the Republican Party, but it amounts to unilateral disarmament with madmen like Cheney, Rove and DeLay running things.
On the other side, we had forward-looking Democrats who took Bill Clinton's winning formula of centrism and fiscal conservatism and tried to marry it with core progressive principles. I'm talking about Howard Dean, Wes Clark and John Edwards, three guys who almost made it seem cool to be a Democrat again. Their divergent storylines--Dean the insurgent-turned-frontrunner, Clark the general, Edwards the pretty-boy class warrior--overshadowed strong underlying similarities of responsible fiscal stewardship coupled with attention to socioeconomic "equity" issues at home and a return to the traditional (pre-Bush 43) foreign policy consensus abroad. If the Democrats are going to regain a durable majority, their views will lead the way. (It's not a coincidence, by the way, that these were the three most charismatic contenders.) I don't doubt that their stance eventually will define the party, but I'm worried that their time might not have come just yet.
You'll notice I haven't included John Kerry in either of these camps. The fact that he won probably indicates success in blurring those differences, as well as his greater credibility on national security. But I'm also just not really sure where Kerry stands on this question.
Is Kerry a "special-interest Democrat" in the mode of Mondale, Dukakis and Gephardt? Or a pragmatic progressive as Clinton could and should have been, as Robert Kennedy once was? The vice-presidential pick could give us the answer, and that answer could determine the outcome of the election.