But Kerry had that thinking beat out of him. In the
late 1980s, he got pummeled by the mainstream news media and the
political establishment for exposing cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan
contra rebels and for embarrassing their Reagan-Bush patrons.
Respectable Washington didn’t want to believe the ugly reality.
Mocked by the big newspapers and branded a “randy
conspiracy buff” by Newsweek, Kerry was persuaded by party insiders that
his political future required him to trim his sails and dump his
rebelliousness overboard. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Kerry’s
So, by the time he ran for president in 2004, Kerry
was silent about his heroic investigations of the 1980s. He presented
himself instead as a careful politician who spoke in a fog of nuance.
Whenever he seemed poised to crush the bumbling George W. Bush, Kerry
retreated into poll-tested platitudes.
As it turned out – as the younger Kerry would have
understood – the greatest risk was to play it safe.
Now, to hear Kerry tell it, he has relearned the
lesson that he once knew. He has vowed to fight with clarity and
passion. But the tragedy of John Kerry – like “The Natural” in Bernard
Malamud’s novel (not the movie) – may be that opportunity missed is
often a chance lost for good.
In life, you often don’t get a second act. Except,
of course, for Democratic “strategists,” who always seem to get a second
act, even a third and a fourth, no matter how often they lose.
Strategist Bob Shrum, for instance, has been a chronic loser in
presidential races but is still sought out by Democratic hopefuls,
including John Kerry in 2004.
And, when they’re not applying their cold hands to
Democratic campaigns, the strategists can put a chill on any Democrat’s
principled behavior by whispering in the ears of journalists that a
seemingly noble act is reckless, calculated or somehow both.
That was the case when Sen. Russell Feingold,
D-Wisconsin, proposed censuring Bush for authorizing warrantless
wiretaps of Americans outside the legal channels of the 1978 Foreign
Intelligence Surveillance Act – and thus in violation of the Fourth
Amendment’s ban on searches and seizures without the government getting
a court’s approval.
While Feingold’s proposal could be viewed as a
moderate step – expressing congressional disapproval short of
impeachment – Washington Post reporter Charles Babington searched out
unnamed “Democratic strategists” to make Feingold’s plan look both
craven and crazy.
“Some party strategists,” Babington wrote, “worried
that voters will see the move as overreaching partisanship.” Then, going
in the opposite direction, Babington quoted the strategists worrying
that the real problem with Feingold’s initiative was that challenging
Bush on abrogating the Fourth Amendment wasn’t the smartest partisan
“Several Democratic strategists said (illegal)
surveillance issues are not Bush’s most vulnerable spot, and they fear
the party may appear extremist,” Babington wrote.
The Post reporter then quoted a strategist,
identified only as a former aide to President Bill Clinton, as saying,
“It is more likely that a big censure fight would have the effect of
rallying folks to his (Bush’s) side.”
The Clinton aide added, “While some in the
Democratic base want retribution for what happened to Clinton, I think
there is a larger reluctance to try to remove people from office.”
But the Clinton aide’s assessment of motivation –
that Democrats “want retribution” for the impeachment drive against
Clinton – seems to have little evidentiary support. The grassroots
pressure for holding Bush accountable has sprung from outrage over his
“preemptive” war in Iraq, his lies and his violations of the
Without the unattributed quote from the Clinton
aide, Babington would have been hard-pressed to find citations among
grassroots bloggers or other Democratic activists who want Bush
impeached or otherwise punished as retribution for Clinton’s humiliation
But the Clinton aide’s comment fits with the
mainstream media’s critique of Feingold’s censure resolution as almost
all things negative: partisan, “extremist,” counter-productive and
The “Democratic strategists” thus set up the
story’s kicker line. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio,
called Feingold’s resolution “political grandstanding of the very worst
kind.” [Washington Post, March 14, 2006]
The construction of Babington’s story also
underscores the difficulty that any Democrat faces in trying to take
principled stands against Republicans.
The Washington Post and other mainstream news
outlets will invariably apply a negative spin suggesting some ulterior
motive; the Republicans will counter-attack aggressively; and
“Democratic strategists” will deliver a sucker punch from behind.
Similar muggings hit John Kerry when he tried to
the contra-cocaine scandal in the 1980s; battered
Al Gore in 2002 when he questioned Bush’s rush to war in Iraq;
John Conyers’s hearing on the Downing Street Memo in 2005; and now
confront Feingold for daring to seek even a mild form of accountability
The lesson for Democrats who want to stand and
fight is that they must respond to this three-sided problem with a
three-pronged solution: challenging Republican wrongdoing without fear
or equivocation; building media outlets that will circumvent the smug
mainstream press; and standing behind the rare Democratic politician who
shows some courage.