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 The Kerry Ferry 

September 7, 2004 
Every now and then we get horrifying news stories about a ferry boat overturning when too many passengers rush to one side. Read Joe's columns the day he writes 
them.Something like that seems to have happened to the Democratic Party last winter, when too many party members suddenly decided that John Kerry, an orthodox Massachusetts liberal, was their most “electable” candidate. Now the Kerry Ferry has capsized.

The signs of desperation are abundant. Kerry is sinking in the polls, party insiders are blaming him for an uninspired campaign, and he has shaken up his campaign staff with only weeks to go before the election. He’s even taking advice from former President Bill Clinton, who may want him to lose this year so that Hillary Clinton can be the Democrats’ candidate in 2008.

True, Kerry has made lots of blunders and is a soporific campaigner. But what do the Democrats expect him to do? Their chief demand is that he “sharpen the contrast” between himself and George W. Bush.

But there are only two ways to do that, and neither of them would work. He could run to the right of Bush, but the Democrats themselves won’t allow that, and nobody would believe him. Try to imagine Kerry calling for a contraction of the Federal Government, or reversing himself on abortion. Any such move would lose his base and aggravate his reputation as a flip-flopper.

Could he run to the left of Bush? There too Bush has left him little room, unless he wants to run as an all-out socialist. Bush has already established himself as the biggest spender since Lyndon Johnson, adding Medicare entitlements that will eventually cost trillions as Baby Boomers, whose numbers are roughly equal to the population of Germany, reach retirement age.

Bush may be the perfect politician for a democracy. He combines liberal policies with conservative rhetoric. Liberals presumably want Kerry to offer liberal policies with liberal rhetoric. But that would be an illusory contrast, and liberal rhetoric doesn’t sell these days.

Kerry passed up the chance to create a real contrast with Bush on the Iraq war. In fact, this is what supposedly made him “electable,” according to the conventional wisdom du jour of last winter. The war was still popular then, so Kerry didn’t oppose it, choosing instead to flaunt his own war record, in implicit contrast with Bush’s.

[Breaker quote: The quest for a contrast]Now the updated conventional wisdom du jour demands that he display a more vigorous, less “nuanced” contrast. But how? He has allowed the Republicans, amazingly, to turn his war record into a liability, while Bush’s avoidance of Vietnam hardly seems to matter at all.

Poor Kerry! Far from being electable, he just isn’t cut out for politics — at least not outside Massachusetts, where a liberal Democrat can run a passive campaign and win by a landslide. To Democrats, a Massachusetts liberal is a “moderate,” so during the primary season they counseled him to keep right on doing what he’d always done. It seemed to be working.

Well, Bush and the Republicans knew what to do with that! They learned a generation ago that Massachusetts is the Alice’s Looking-Glass of American politics. Whatever is taboo in the Bay State is a hot button in most of the country, and vice versa.

Kerry doesn’t get it. The more he calls the Bush gang “right-wing” — an epithet they don’t deserve — the more he helps them create the illusory contrast that serves their turn, by implying that he himself is “left-wing.”

Real right-wingers insist that we have what amounts to a one-party system, since both the Republicans and the Democrats share the same big-government premises. Kerry’s real problem — and it’s probably insoluble — is to find, in only a few weeks, a way to beat a collectivist who poses as a conservative.

Kerry is trapped by the hypocrisy of both parties. He can’t talk about the real contrast: that whereas Bush is a phony conservative, he, John Kerry is the true collectivist in this race.

Maybe Bill Clinton, with his extraordinary rhetorical agility, could talk his way out of this one by introducing distracting topics, but it’s probably too late for the lumbering Kerry, who can’t change his wooden style. His ineptitude makes gentle Michael Dukakis look like a vicious streetfighter.

Still, it’s not all Kerry’s fault. Even a better politician would find this a tough one. The Republicans have found the key to winning in a one-party system; the Democrats don’t have a clue. As usual, they’re blaming their candidate for everything.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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