- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004

The Democrats were looking for a candidate who could unite the party, and now they have one in John F. Kerry. His was a super sweep of Super Tuesday: nine states to Howard Dean’s Vermont.

It was almost a formality, as if the inevitable had arrived. Everything exciting had happened early — in Iowa and New Hampshire. Party unity not only has been assured, but assured early.

Unfortunately, the Democrats will also have Ralph Nader hacking away on their port side, hoping to peel off some of the angry voters Mr. Dean attracted earlier in the season — before he proved too angry to win.

But the party can hope Ralph Nader will prove the John Anderson of this campaign. Remember him? As an independent, he ran a strong campaign in 1980 — strong for a third-party candidate, anyway — but the bloom was off when he ran again four years later. It was as if he were in the race just to collect the campaign funding he was due under the election laws.

This year the Democrats not only have decided on their nominee, but they’ve done it early in the game — which is what the party apparatus wanted.

Unfortunately, there’s also such a thing as peaking too soon. How will the Kerry campaign maintain the suspense, the novelty, the excitement of his campaign without an injection of sound and fury every couple of weeks via the presidential primaries?

There’s only so much suspense the party can wring out of a vice-presidential pick.

The looming problem for the Dems is that the new will wear off John Kerry long before fall, maybe even long before summer — if there was ever much new there to begin with. This presidential campaign already feels awfully old, and it’s not even the ides of March yet.

The Democrats now have their consensus candidate, rather than a McGovern II. In John Kerry, they’ve got the very picture of an experienced political veteran not likely to make any sudden moves or upsetting changes. His craggy features, his Brahmin accent, and everything about his style assures. In short, he’s got the appearance of substance.

Unfortunately, as the campaign heats up, some of the wilder swings in John Kerry’s career voting record will attract attention, if not sheer puzzlement, and he’ll be obliged to keep on explaining why he’s been for and against the war in Iraq, NAFTA, the Patriot Act, the No Child Left Behind Act… and there may be no convincing explanation. Except he was following, not leading, every shifting tide in public sentiment.

Happily for the party out of power, Americans love a candidate who promises change — so long as he doesn’t change anything they like. So if Mr. Kerry will just keep chanting change like a mantra, but not go into detail, he’ll be safe.

Unfortunately, if the Democratic nominee begins getting specific about just what he’ll change and just how, he may run into resistance. And suspicion. It’s the difference between promising health care and delivering HillaryCare, between hating war but neglecting threats to the peace till a September 11 hits the country. Mr. Kerry will just have to specialize in generalities.

The glue that holds Mr. Kerry’s campaign together will be a visceral dislike — no, a sheer hatred — of George W. Bush, his policies, his personality, his accent, the way he walks and talks and smiles and wears his belt buckle ….

Will Rogers once claimed he belonged to no organized political party — he was a Democrat. But this year the Democrats have an organizing principle: their common loathing of the leader of the opposition. Which is what sustained hard-core Republicans when Franklin Roosevelt had a permanent lease on the White House: fear and loathing of “that man.” But it was never broadly based. In those years, the GOP was more a private club than a political party.

Will hatred be enough this year? The Republicans found out it wasn’t enough against Bill Clinton when they nominated a veteran senator and war hero of their own, Bob Dole. As his campaign faded away around him, the poor man was left to wonder: Where’s the outrage?

A distaste for the incumbent, however fulfilling for the party faithful, just isn’t enough to sustain a winning campaign for the presidency. It has to be teamed with a positive appeal. What will be John Kerry’s version of George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism? Strong-minded liberalism?

The campaign is so young, yet already so set, that this JFK has time to change course on any number of other issues as events unfold, even while looking as rock-solid as the New England coastline. It’ll be an interesting challenge for the senator to meet. But by November, the rest of the country may have lost interest.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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