- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 1, 2004

“The embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world,” declared Ted Kennedy, in a moment of Revolutionary War nostalgia. Or he would have done, if he had managed to stick to his text. But, in a strikingly erratic performance even by his standards, what actually emerged from the senator’s lips was: they “fired the shirt round the world.”

That sums up better than anything what the Democratic Party was trying to do last week for its presidential candidate: fire the stuffed shirt round the world, put a rocket up a guy who seems weighed down by his own self-importance and project him into the stratosphere. All the star speakers through the week were the equivalents of those bits of the rocket that boost you into space and then fall away, leaving just the little capsule up there. And, who knows, if they boosted him up high enough, maybe nobody would notice just how little there is to John Kerry’s little capsule.

Well, that was the theory. “I’m John Kerry,” began the candidate last Thursday night, “and I’m … reporting for duty.”

Democratic Party partisans appreciate this stuff — a stageful of Swifties, the war-wounded Max Cleland, “we band of brothers, a little older, a little greyer” — but they appreciate it mainly as a postmodern jest, a way of sticking it to the Republicans. To anybody else, including those sought-after “swing voters” in “battleground states,” it’s starting to sound a little weird. John Kerry says he’s running on his record, but, of his four decades of adult life, he’s running on his four months in Vietnam. Of the other 39 years and eight months, there’s nary a word.

Take any one of the showbiz luminaries at the Democratic Convention — Glenn Close, say. Imagine if she’s up for a big role in a new movie and the producers say, “Well, what have you done?” And she says, “I’ve got a great resume. I did summer stock in Vermont in 1969. Third Indian maiden in Rose-Marie.” And no, I’m not comparing Vietnam to summer stock: What I’m saying is that, whatever you were doing in 1969, it’s simply unnatural to emphasize that at the expense of the subsequent 35 years. Certainly, no previous veteran — Bob Dole, the elder George Bush, Jimmy Carter, George McGovern — ever thought to do it.

Vietnam is paying diminishing returns for Mr. Kerry. The more he harps on it the more hollow seems the post-Vietnam John Kerry — i.e., Sen. Kerry — and the more he sounds like a man whose worldview was frozen in the ‘60s. “We believed we could change the world,” he said of those times. “And you know what? We did. But we’re not finished.” Just what we need: more Boomer self-congratulation. Amid the variously labored song titles selected for the convention — “We Are Family,” “You’ve Got A Friend” — the one that struck me as most pertinent to the Kerry campaign was “Blowin’ in the Wind.” The archetypal weathervane pol thinks he had figured it out: The voters want tough talk — “strong,” “stronger,” “strengthen” evidently all poll-test well — but rather less action when they switch on the evening news. So Mr. Kerry’s position on the war is this:

“Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response.”

Got that? If the Empire State Building is taken out, he’ll certainly respond to it. Next time around, there won’t be any mistakes about where the weapons of mass destruction are, because they’ll be in the middle of a big crater in Chicago.

For me, that one line encapsulates the stale, dozy complacency of the supposedly complex Mr. Kerry. Others evidently feel differently. But it seems to me emblematic of the Democratic Party’s problem intellectually: it’s almost wholly reactionary — on national security, on Social Security. What are the Democrats for? Well, they’re for getting rid of George W. Bush, but what else?

Floundering for a cause with which to rally the citizenry, the party eventually found one: itself. “Our greatness is also measured by our goodness,” declared Howard Dean. “I’ve seen it in the people I’ve met and their desire to take our country back for the American people. I saw it in a college student in Pennsylvania who sold her bicycle and sent us a check for $100 with a note that said, ‘I sold my bicycle for democracy.’”

Really? John F. Kerry’s bicycle cost $8,000. Why doesn’t he sell his for democracy? If you throw in the designer French T-shirt and buttock-hugging lemon-hued lycra shorts, you would probably be up around an even 10 grand. When Howard Dean and John Kerry and John Edwards talk about “change,” what they mean is you send these bazillionaire grandees the hundred-dollar bill and they’ll keep the change.

What did that co-ed cutie get for her $100? Presumably she sent it to Mr. Dean because he was anti-war. He lost to Mr. Kerry, who at that time was for-and-against the war, in the same way that he’s for-and-against abortion and for-and-against same-sex “marriage.” But he seems to have come down, Iraqwise, on the “for” side of the ledger. He’ll spend a little more time ineffectually chit-chatting with Kofi Annan and Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, but other than that his Iraq policy sounds more like Mr. Bush’s every day. That college coed ponied up her $100 and isn’t getting a lot of “change.” I wonder if she has missing her bicycle this summer.

There was a narcissism about the tone of the convention that cut to the heart of the Democratic Party’s difficulties: They don’t believe in anything except their monopoly of goodness. That’s why John Edwards’ supposedly “appealing biography” is appealing only next to John Kerry’s. Instead of marrying his money, he sued his way into it. But his message doesn’t resonate with most Americans because it boils down to: If I can do it, you can’t. But here are some government programs instead. On the other hand, Mr. Edwards’ very condescension to the downtrodden masses confirms middle-class liberals in their sense of their own virtue.

That’s the essence of this convention: a condescending media congratulating a condescending leadership for effectively communicating to their condescending activists their plans for everyone else. John F. Kerry should enjoy it while he can. It’s downhill from here.

Mark Steyn is the senior contributing editor for Hollinger Inc. Publications, senior North American columnist for Britain’s Telegraph Group, North American editor for the Spectator and a nationally syndicated columnist.

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