The Problem With Kerry

He's so—zzzzzzzzzzz ...

OK, here's the problem I have with John Kerry as the Democratic presidential nominee:

He's dull.

This is not a startling revelation of any sort. But sometimes the most obvious factors are, indeed, the most important. Compared to the other remaining contenders, Kerry is second to just about all in ability to electrify a TV audience, and the fact that he convincingly won both Iowa and New Hampshire and is on an inside track for the Democratic nomination is a measure of either Kerry's other considerable talents or the fact that Iowans and Granite Staters don't get out much.

More and more Democrats have been concluding that electability—the ability of a candidate to beat Dubya—is their most important criteria, trumping any and all of the usual issue litmus tests Dems specialize in.

But Bush would cream Kerry.

With the exception of Joe Lieberman, who will probably be out by the time you read this, and Gen. Wesley "Dr. Strangelove and Mr. Hyde" Clark, I'm neither alarmed by nor passionate about any of the remaining major candidates' prospective policies. As a president, Kerry would be serviceable—not great, but a massive upgrade on what's now being inflicted on the world. Problem is, he can't get from here to there.

Whether we like it or not—and I hate it—a large chunk of the electorate these days factors personality heavily into its decision when casting votes. Even worse, it's not even the candidate's actual personality—for all we know, Kerry might be a perfectly pleasant fellow. It's how the guy projects on TV. Kerry is a fine speaker in person, but that's not how most people would experience him. And personality rules.

I hate this because policies are policies—a candidate can direct the public's attention to or away from the good ones or bad ones he's advocated in the past, but they are what they are. By contrast, most people's personalities could be polished to a highly likable gleam by the political equivalent of Madison Avenue. Even if you think that leaders' temperaments are an important part of the course of world events, it's easy enough to fake it.

Unless you've got, as a candidate, a Walter Mondale, or a Michael Dukakis, or an Al Gore. Or a John Kerry.

Try to imagine courtroom whiz John Edwards one-on-one in a debate with George Bush. It would be the sort of one-sided slaughter the President of Mars so richly deserves. Dean would say two stupid things and 20 brilliant ones. Clark, whatever his other faults, radiates enough crackle to have leaped into national prominence as a TV pundit, for goodness sake.

Kerry would, um, would, zzzzzzz. . . .

Don't give me that "flinty New Englander" and "stoic Midwesterner" stuff; one of the most ebullient guys I've ever known was Minnesotan to his core, and my beloved is from coastal Maine. So how do they find these guys? Why do they keep picking them? And why, when electability is clearly their most important criterion this year, are Democrats still so willing to pick someone as personality-impaired as John Kerry?

This is a particularly brutal form of electoral suicide when the opponent will be a president's son who's been worth millions from the day he was born but has already proved he can convince much of the country that he's jes a regular ol' guy. With coattails.

Try to imagine anybody riding to office on John Kerry's coattails. Much has been made of the apparent delight of Karl Rove and company over a possible matchup with Howard Dean, but Kerry can't be much better. Bush would spend six months repeating five words: "Massachusetts. Liberal. Senator. Washington. Insider." Voters would supply two more: "Stiff. Boring."

Madison Avenue, as I noted, can polish almost anything, but it's pretty hard to polish mashed potatoes, and it's pretty hard to graft a mass-media personality onto a candidate whose very core refuses to have one. For the Democrats, still smarting from the self-inflicted wounds of Al Gore's botched campaign, not much could destroy the party more effectively than allowing Dubya not one but two free passes at four years of world wrecking, simply because his opponents both acted like automatons.

Gore was a good example of the failed efforts of America's best personality surgeons to graft media likability onto someone without any. The result was one of the world's great plastic personality surgery disasters, with so many failed remodels that, by November, Gore wound up, in voters' minds, as the personality equivalent of Michael Jackson's face.

Kerry could be next. Do we really want that?

gparrish@seattleweekly.com

 
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