It’s doubtful that the average American thinks very much about his own past, let alone the past of his nation’ recent presidents. Most Americans are forward looking; something they have in common with tempest tossed immigrants newly arrived in the land of milk and honey.
During his first campaign against the current president’s father, former president Bill Clinton was careful not to dwell too much on his dubious past: It took awhile for that past to catch him up with the fleet footed Clinton and grab him by the throat.
Clinton’s first campaign was grounded firmly in the insubstantial future. The past belongs to history and may be, especially to those who have lived in it, a twilight shrouded, dangerous terrain. The future belongs to the imagination and is made of “frogs and snails and puppy dog’s tails.” As boys -- who will be boys -- enter their maturity, their pasts, so the poem tells us, are transmuted to “sighs and leers, and crocodile tears.”
If John Kerry didn’t get himself a rosy future soon, some of his new advisors warned, he would be condemned for the rest of his campaign to repeat the errors of his past, bore everyone to tears and let victory slip from his fingers.
Vietnam, viewed as a paralysis of the national will, was over, a casualty of the first Gulf war. The sixties were over. Long hair and talk-ins and doubtful public declarations made ex-warriors turned peacenicks were over. In the post 9/11 period, it was no longer politically useful to insist that preventative military action might be unconstitutional. Kerry himself would soon be over, they speculated, if he didn’t get over the past and move on.
All this was sound advice.
Going into his campaign, Kerry faced three major difficulties, all of which he failed to address: The economy was shaking off the after effects of a lingering depression that, much to the distress of Democrats, had begun in the last days of the Clinton administration and could not rightly be attributed to President George Bush; and the democratization of Iraq appeared to be inching forward, despite efforts by anti-Western Islamic terrorists to frustrate the attempt to turn Baghdad into a resplendent Washington on the Potomac.
On the economy, Bush had been more right than wrong: Certain kinds of tax cuts – as it happened, those ardently deplored by progressives -- did indeed spur economy activity and increase tax revenues. And a rising economic tide, as former President John Kennedy once said, “lifts all the boats.”
The tide was incoming.
On Iraq, Bush may have been be right in the short run. Americans, an intensely practical people, tend to mistrust those who claim to be able to square circles. While in the long run the democratization of Iraq may fail, it never is advantageous for an American aspirant to the presidency to argue persuasively that democracy need not be everyone’s cup of tea, especially from within a Democrat presidential campaign.
And then there was Kerry’s last and most formidable problem: The present, with fanatical terrorists in view, could not be romanticized out of existence. During his first presidential campaign, Clinton often pointed to a bright imaginary future, partially a construct of his own ambitions, because Osama Bin Laden, Hussein and his ogre sons were outside the house peering through the windows.
They entered the house after 9/11.
Only when Islamic terrorism is met with and deflected by a superior force will a return to normalcy be possible.
Kerry’s final obstacle involved the inability of a tiger to change his stripes. By nature and predilection, congressmen are fence straddlers. Kerry is a congressman; like others of his kind, he waffles on issues because it is the nature of the congressional beast to so position himself on every issue that he cannot be attacked by political opponents for having the mental clarity to choose between sundering either/or’s.
Is the earth flat or round? The practiced pragmatic congressman will answer the question by asserting that it is a little of both, depending on your point of view, thus assuming a moderate position that will offend neither opposing factions, the flatearthers or the roundearthers, and assuring re-election to congress -- which is to clarity of vision what the Tower of Babel was to communication.
Kerry was not able, within the last few weeks of his campaign, to demonstrate to his countrymen that he had in hand a workable plan to secure their peace and prosperity – a detailed and particular plan, not a tepid soup of glowing generalities.
His candidacy did not survive the challenge presented to it, and to his country, by a transnational ideology bent on its destruction.