Early on in the presidential campaign, my lefty friends told me they would probably vote for John Kerry, but with regret and gritted teeth. "My choices are 'Skull and Bones' George Bush or 'Skull and Bones' John Kerry," a friend sneered at me. John Kerry was "no Bill Clinton," other friends have sighed; Bubba was flawed, but he wasn't a drone, a bore and a stiff, like this guy. "ABB," or Anybody but Bush, was one of the campaign's persistent clichés. If John Kerry won this election, the sentiment was, he wouldn't have won, exactly -- because no one is really for John Kerry -- George Bush would have lost.
But now that the campaign is over, John Kerry deserves better than that. He proved himself to be a man of principle and a fierce competitor. He came within 136,438 votes in Ohio -- maybe fewer once those provisional ballots are counted -- of unseating a wartime president and spoiling the dreams of a Republican Party bent on three-branch domination. He certainly wasn't a perfect candidate, and he surely did not run a perfect campaign. But who was the perfect Democratic candidate in 2004? Howard Dean? Let's not revisit the scream, shall we? I shudder to think of what Karl Rove, with his millions and his minions, would have done to the good doctor from Vermont. Dean's crystal-clear antiwar position may have won over some voters, and you surely can't label him a "flip-flopper." But as principled as he was, and despite his success motivating the left early on, if he couldn't survive the primary season, he surely couldn't have weathered a fight with the Republicans.
Would John Edwards have been a better nominee? If you think the left wasn't excited about John Kerry, let me introduce you to a multimillionaire trial lawyer from North Carolina with limited liberal credentials who could never quite shed that sheen of insincerity and would have been clobbered for his lack of national security experience. No, John Kerry was the best the Democratic Party had to offer this year, and that was actually saying a lot.
And think of what he was up against. No incumbent president has ever lost in wartime. It's tough enough to unseat an incumbent in peacetime, especially one with gobs of money and the conservative grass roots mobilized behind it. True, Bush's failure to catch Osama bin Laden and generally tame the al-Qaida threat, and his reckless diversion into Iraq, should have cost him the election; and the Democrats never successfully hung that on the president. But with Dick Cheney warning of impending nuclear holocaust, and the Bush campaign's general theme of "Vote Democrat and die," the Republicans scared enough voters into sticking with their approach. The economy hasn't been friendly to average Americans, but it wasn't bad enough to eclipse the war in Iraq and terrorism in voters' minds. And Bush's push for tax cuts, as skewed toward the wealthy elite as his policy is, clearly resonated with many voters.
John Kerry was also up against Rove, whose strategy of focusing on "moral issues" like abortion and gay marriage and playing to Bush's evangelical base turned out to be prescient. Bill Clinton advised Kerry to neutralize the gay issue by backing the same-sex marriage bans that passed in 11 states on Tuesday. Kerry declined. He has stated public opposition to gay marriage and support for civil unions, but voted against the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, calling it "legislative gay-bashing."
"I'm not going to ever do that," Kerry said of Clinton's advice, according to Newsweek. Kerry has heard quite a bit about the fact that he isn't Clinton. He's certainly not a comparable orator or as dazzling a presence, and that is understandably lamentable. Perhaps Kerry also was less calculating than Clinton -- and if he had been, shall we say, "slicker" on some things, it may have helped him. But it's nice to know that on this issue, at least, he wouldn't completely sell out his principles and, along with them, gay Americans.
John Kerry was also up against himself to some degree. As a Massachusetts Democrat, he was lumped in with Teddy Kennedy and Michael Dukakis and labeled a "liberal" by the Republicans. It's a label that, no matter how clichéd and outdated at this point, managed to work against him with some swing voters. Being a senator didn't help Kerry either. There's a reason senators don't often become presidents. They leave a paper trail of votes -- gold mines for opposition researchers. Kerry also couldn't coin a slogan or give a good sound bite to save his life, which was the fault of the professional politicos on his staff as much as it was his. Kerry's "nuanced" position, for example, on the Iraq war, could be maddening to interpret at times, and likely cost him votes of people looking for a clear alternative to Bush's policies. And it's true that Kerry could be wooden and verbose. He was, the pundits told us over and over, not the candidate most voters would want to have a beer with, and yet, John Kerry showed them and us that "likability" and "electability" don't have to mean acting like a frat boy. He possessed a dignity and a deep thoughtfulness that would have come as a great relief.
John Kerry supporters streamed to campaign rallies by the tens of thousands this fall, even when Bruce Springsteen wasn't there. They cheered when he talked about their issues -- from stem cell research to building global coalitions. As imperfect as he was, John Kerry was our hope. We watched him slay Bush in the debates, with his intellect, wit and skill. We watched him toss Bush against the ropes, on the missing explosives and the elusive Mr. bin Laden, over and over again in October. We watched him come this close to becoming our president.
If Bush lost on Tuesday, and he came pretty close to doing just that, we would be hearing far less now about what a brilliant campaign "architect" Karl Rove is, and instead how Rove fumbled big time, how even his dark genius couldn't help Bush win a second term, despite all the built-in advantages of the incumbency. Perhaps a more calculating, fast-quipping, unequivocating Kerry would have done better. But in the end, John Kerry didn't defeat John Kerry; George W. Bush did. While it's true that 49 percent of voters, or nearly 56 million Americans, chose Kerry on Tuesday, Bush was the choice of about 3 million more. His reelection wasn't Kerry's failure so much as one more Republican victory in a string of elections that have gone their way. It's a problem the left and the Democratic Party must face now head on, a problem much larger than John Kerry.
George Bush won this election. He won it hands down, popular vote and all. John Kerry may not have won the White House, but he was a strong candidate who gave us a thrilling ride. And for that, we should be grateful. Let us now praise John Kerry, for he gave it his all.