Another John Kerry Run in ’08? Don’t Hold Your Breath

Posted November 12, 2004 at 2:57pm

Sen. John Kerry’s brother, Cam, noted last week that the Massachusetts Democrat has not ruled out another run for president in four years. [IMGCAP(1)]

Assuming that Cam Kerry wasn’t suggesting that his brother might run for president of France, it’s worth a moment to consider whether Sen. Kerry would be a formidable contender for his party’s nomination in 2008.

John Kerry ran a credible effort for the White House this year, coming within 70,000 votes of winning Ohio, which would have won him the presidency. As brother Cam noted, John Kerry attracted more than 56 million votes on Nov. 2, more than any presidential nominee in history except for George W. Bush in 2004.

Kerry invested almost two years in his bid, raising hundreds of millions of dollars and logging tens of thousands of miles campaigning across the country. He clearly gave his all to oust the president, and he earned at least some consideration for a second run.

But anyone examining Kerry’s run and prospects for 2008 would have to think that he is a long, long shot for his party’s nomination in four years.

Kerry’s biggest problem is that he lost to a sitting president who presided over a net loss of jobs and was bogged down in a military mess in Iraq. Yes, the Massachusetts Democrat drew tens of millions of votes against Bush, but a rutabaga would have drawn about as many votes as Kerry did.

Kerry’s vote total was much more a reflection of strong Democratic opposition to President Bush, not the electorate’s admiration for or enthusiasm about the Massachusetts Senator.

Let’s be clear about this: Kerry’s vote total isn’t an argument for another Kerry presidential run. It’s an argument for the Democrats nominating a candidate — any candidate — in 2008.

Kerry won more votes than John F. Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Harry Truman, Thomas Jefferson or Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So what? He also won a lower percentage of the two-party vote than each.

Exit polling has uncovered enough evidence to end another Kerry run before it begins.

A majority of voters, 51 percent, said that they had an unfavorable opinion of the Democratic nominee, while only 47 percent had a favorable opinion of him. In contrast, 53 percent had a favorable view of Bush, one of the most polarizing presidents in history.

True, many of the unfavorable responses about Kerry came from Republicans, but that doesn’t alter the political reality for the Senator: Voters didn’t warm to him.

The other numbers aren’t any better for Kerry. A disastrous 58 percent in the exit poll said they didn’t trust the Senator to handle terrorism, and a majority, 53 percent, said that they didn’t trust him to handle the economy. And as polling showed throughout the campaign, a large chunk of Kerry voters backed him primarily because they disliked Bush.

Kerry’s greatest strength wasn’t his personal appeal. He became the Democratic presidential nominee because he had the fewest warts in the Democratic field.

Iowa caucus attendees concluded that Howard Dean couldn’t win the White House, that Richard Gephardt was yesterday’s news, that Joe Lieberman’s views were out of sync with his party and that John Edwards wasn’t ready for the nation’s top job. That left Kerry as “the most electable” Democrat.

Now that he has lost, Kerry’s assets seem much thinner. His “electability” argument has been shattered, and his résumé campaign — based in large part on his Vietnam military service — is in shambles. What would he run on next, his personal warmth? Teresa’s ability to connect with Middle America?

As many of us argued months ago, Kerry’s Massachusetts base and 20-year record in the Senate would prove to be huge liabilities in a race for president. They would once again be liabilities in 2008 — only more so.

Democrats apparently are ready to look outside the Northeast for a nominee in four years, and that is a new hurdle for Kerry, as well as for the junior Senator from New York. (If Democrats insist on nominating a Northeasterner, then Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton — not Kerry — will have the upper hand.)

Supporters of another Kerry run (are there any?) will point to Adlai Stevenson as proof that Kerry might run and be nominated again. Stevenson lost in 1952 but was his party’s nominee again four years later. Of course, Stevenson lost again in 1956, making the example less than useful to Cam Kerry and others who muse about another Kerry run. Want another example? William Jennings Bryan, who went 0 for 3.

In raising doubts about Kerry’s viability in 2008 I wouldn’t want to short-change his effort this year. He came close to winning the White House, and his campaign (and Democratic interest groups) did a terrific job turning out Democratic voters. But let’s get real here.

Kerry had serious flaws, and he’ll have them again in 2008. Going down to defeat in 2004, it’s difficult to believe that the Democrats would jump off of that bridge again.

The Senator may, finally, become a point man for his party for the next two or three years, exerting influence he didn’t have before his White House bid. But for John Kerry, the past isn’t prologue when it comes to the presidency. It’s simply the past.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.