Kerry's Conundrum

To know him is to dislike him


Pity John Kerry, the presumptive Democratic loser in the next presidential election. Kerry may be in rich in money (and rich in love), but he seems dirt-poor in the sort of electoral and political friends who will gain him the Oval Office. Indeed, Kerry may well be the first presidential candidate in history whose supporters—yes, supporters—have likened him to a feminine hygiene product. What's left to say when a candidate's own loyalists call him a douchebag they're voting for anyway, as one blogger memorably has done? If you talk to Democrats, you hear that same basic message, albeit phrased more delicately.

As he becomes better known to the American public that somehow failed to learn much about him during multiple terms in the U.S. Senate, John Kerry is slipping in the polls. According to Gallup, over the course of March and the first half of April, the percentage of likely voters willing to punch his ticket slumped from 50 percent to 44 percent. Perhaps more alarmingly, the percentage of those with a favorable opinion of him has dropped from 61 percent in January to 54 percent a couple of weeks ago. According to a CBS News/New York Times poll, his unfavorables have crept up from 29 percent to 33 percent.

Meanwhile, the press, despite plausible (if often insanely packaged) charges of Democrat-leaning bias, is hammering this junior varsity JFK for statements that are alternately bizarre, defensive, and confusing. It doesn't help that many of them are about relatively trivial matters. These include his recent grilling on Meet The Press, where he insisted that, yes, many unnamed foreign leaders earnestly want him to "beat this guy," George W. Bush. Kerry desperately tried to turn the conversation into a thought experiment on how he might have met such leaders despite his not traveling abroad since becoming a candidate. "You can go to New York City and you can be in a restaurant and you can meet a foreign leader," he said, in "standing by" his original statement. That's the sort of tactic that might have won college debates (Kerry was a forensics champion at Yale) but it isn't going to score many points with anyone since Socrates pulled a Brody. Similarly off-putting were his explanations about whether he tossed his war medals, or someone else's, or just his ribbons, or someone else's, at a 1971 "act of political theater."

The actual truth of any of this matters far less than the general vibe it gives off. And that vibe has even reliably Democratic members of the press writing pieces headlined "John Kerry Must Go" and crafting bon mots like this one by Robert Sam Anson in The New York Observer: "No one's saying that Mr. Kerry's cooked. But McGovern parallels give him a toasted look he didn't get skiing in Sun Valley."

What explains Kerry's failure to connect? Doubtless part of it is that his campaign lacks a unifying theme, or even the hint of a big message that is both broadly appealing and sufficiently distinct from anything offered by George Bush. All of Kerry's policy flip-flops, real and imagined, aren't helping, either. The Kerry team is seeking to remedy the problem with what it called "the largest single purchase of advertising time in a presidential race," according to The New York Times. The ads—$27.5 million of them—will focus on his "life story" and will "establish his leadership credentials, highlighting his decorated combat record in Vietnam."

But the problem may well be Kerry's personality and, hence, largely impossible to fix, at least short of long-term therapy. Though largely unarticulated at this point, his policy differences with Bush are likely to be relatively minor (especially compared to someone like, say, Howard Dean, who was willing to stake out a sharply anti-Bush position on every issue). Indeed, Kerry is for the most part a centrist Democrat and, in the past, a supporter of NAFTA, The PATRIOT Act, and war in Iraq. To the extent he is backtracking from his own record, he is confusing undecided voters as much as wooing them.

To a large degree—and we might as well admit it, to a disturbingly large degree—the battle for the White House may well come down to a personality contest. And that's a contest Kerry will lose, probably badly. Despite the hatred he inspires among the shrinking rolls of the American left and some traditional Democrats, Bush is generally seen as a decent, get-along guy. Not so Kerry. As my colleague Charles Paul Freund writes in the May issue of Reason, "Kerry is an old-fashioned senatorial blowhard, with a tendency to 'orate.' At the start of his initially unpromising campaign, he was quoting Alexis de Tocqueville to guys in bars."

As The Washington Times, reports, a recent CBS/New York Times poll rating the "likability" of Bush and Kerry found that the president pulled a 57 percent favorable response, compared to 48 percent for the senator. "It is a problem for Kerry," pollster John Zogby told the Times. "When you are talking about selecting a leader, barring an unforeseen circumstance, you have to like that leader."

To be sure, there is plenty of time left in the presidential campaign and events may well overtake personalities. The Pew Research Center's Andrew Kohut told the Times that "Personality plays more of a role in an election…when the country is not confronted with big problems." We've got big problems galore. But so does Kerry, especially if he's going to make this a truly competitive race, one in which voters are at least offered the semblance of a meaningful choice between the two major party candidates.