Is the New John Kerry Just a Replica of the Old Howard Dean?

Posted February 16, 2005 at 2:27pm

The e-mail address said it was from johnkerry.com, but the language was straight out of the Howard Dean for President playbook. [IMGCAP(1)]

“In 2004 you did something amazing. You helped build the largest, most aggressive grassroots effort in history — and that has fundamentally changed the face of Democratic politics,” began the missive.

That recent e-mail from John Kerry — actually from Friends of John Kerry Inc. — informed me that the Massachusetts Senator and unsuccessful 2004 Democratic nominee for president planned to donate $1 million to the Democratic National Committee “to support grassroots organizing” at the DNC.

While that contribution received plenty of ink, it was the e-mail itself that got my attention. It sounded more like the language of presidential candidate Dean, insurgent strategist Joe Trippi or even retired Gen. Wesley Clark, not Kerry, the Brahmin from Boston.

“I believe the answer is to transform the movement you built into a permanent grassroots presence for the Democratic Party in every state across the nation,” continued the e-mail.

After announcing his contribution (really from funds left over from his presidential campaign), Kerry continued, “There’s only one way to win — we’ve got to compete everywhere, all the time. Our party should be a constant positive presence in every American community, and we can be if we tap into the grassroots energy of volunteers.”

The language in the e-mail suggested it came from an outsider who was part of a mini-revolution at the DNC, and someone who was intent on transforming his party.

But was the Dean-sounding e-mail actually from the DNC or its new chairman, Dean? Democrats familiar with the Kerry e-mail indicate that neither the national committee nor the new chairman wrote the e-mail.

“[The Kerry folks] came up with the text of the e-mail. Howard Dean was not shown the text of the e-mail before it went out,” said a Democrat familiar with the message.

Yes, I know, e-mails and fundraising appeals are generally written by professionals, not by the candidate or the signatory. But the e-mail, combined with his opposition to the confirmation of both Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, his anti-Donald Rumsfeld petition and Kids First Act proposal, paint a picture of someone who hasn’t stopped running for president.

So does his Web site.

“johnkerry.com is a remarkable community of online activists. Over three million strong, we are working side-by-side to bring the powerful voice of grassroots activists to the center of American politics,” begins the message on its home page.

“Every day, we demonstrate the strength of our convictions and the power of our collective energy, passion and organization.”

When you think of Kerry’s 2004 presidential effort, do the words “convictions” and “passion” jump to mind?

I’m sure that the Senator has both convictions and passion, but the Republicans and many of Kerry’s Democratic rivals successfully painted a very different picture.

Dean didn’t have a monopoly on “building the grass-roots message,” and almost all of the Democratic presidential contenders eventually sought to “borrow” the former Vermont governor’s insurgent style and grass-roots message. But Kerry’s candidacy was built on his résumé and electability, not his commitment to build a grass-roots presence in the party or his effort to change the “face of Democratic politics.”

So what’s going on? It looks to me as if Kerry, in trying to keep his options open for 2008, has decided to become the New Kerry.

In a field without Dean (who has said that he won’t be a candidate for president now that he chairs the DNC) and with possible hopefuls such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Virginia Gov. Mark Warner all likely to deliver a more centrist message, Kerry may be trying to position himself more as a populist fighter and vehicle for change than he was in 2004.

The Democrats’ 2008 field could well be a crowded one, with the nomination valuable after eight years of a Republican Congress and White House. Kerry apparently figures that his party has changed and he needs to change with it.

And if his e-mail is any indication, he’s planning to change into Dean. But Dean couldn’t win his party’s nomination for president, let alone the White House, and the strongest argument that Kerry had in winning the Democratic nomination last year — electability — is in shambles.

Kerry continues to have a number of assets if he runs again in 2008. And I certainly don’t doubt his sincerity or intentions. But the one thing Kerry doesn’t need to do is feed the existing impression that he is consistent only in his inconsistency.

Stuart Rothenberg is editor of the Rothenberg Political Report.