Kerrey fades, but health insurance cause remains

ON POLITICS R

March 06, 1992|By GERMOND & WITCOVER

DALLAS -- There was a bit of irony in the timing of Sen. Bob Kerrey's announcement that he was ending his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. It came only hours before he was to take part in another debate here, and Kerrey's performance in the debates was one of the high points of his campaign.

In most of them, the Nebraska senator was lively and combative without being offensive, drawing out the others candidates on positions which with which he disagreed and forcefully and feelingly making the case for the one issue on which he managed to identify himself -- national health insurance.

Former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, here to prepare for the debate on ABC's "Nightline," were quick to praise him. Clinton credited Kerrey with putting the issue "on the front burner" and commended him as "an apostle of change" in the country.

Tsongas said he felt a "brotherhood" with Kerrey as a result of the fact they both faced life-threatening circumstances. He said that before deciding to run a year ago he went to two people, Kerrey and Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, and would not have done so if either had said they would.

As it turned out, when Kerrey changed his mind and did run, there were considerable differences between him and Tsongas, most notably on Kerrey's advocacy along with Clinton of a middle-class tax cut, which Tsongas has denounced as a political gimmick that panders to middle-class voters but will do nothing to restore economic growth.

As an opponent, Kerrey caused particular, if temporary, grief for Clinton when, after his only primary victory, in South Dakota, he elected to go after Clinton on his draft record in what proved to be a futile effort to cut into Clinton's support in military-conscious Georgia.

Kerrey's declaration that Clinton was "unelectable" because of the doubts raised about his dealings with the draft during the Vietnam war seemed to many a quixotic gambit, inasmuch as Kerrey earlier had said such things should not be part of the campaign. In fact, Kerrey had suspended an aide who injected it into the campaign.

At his news conference in Washington announcing he was bowing out, Kerrey beat a strategic retreat on the question. He noted that he had "exercised political hyperbole on occasion" in the campaign by saying some others were unelectable, but as the campaign was developing, he said, it became clear to him that "the only one who is unelectable is George Bush."

In early speculation on running mates, many Democrats have mused that a strong ticket might be Clinton and Kerrey, but after Kerrey's raising of the unelectability issue against Clinton, such talk was quieted. There's no way of knowing whether Clinton if nominated would want a running mate who once warned the party that he couldn't win, but stranger things have happened in the selection of a No. 2 man. As recently, for example, as 1988 on the Republican side.

One of the reasons some Democrats have looked on Kerrey as an ideal running mate is the fact that his record of service in Vietnam as a Congressional Medal of Honor winner would seem to make him an ideal candidate to go against Vice President Dan Quayle, whose service in the National Guard and absence from Vietnam would pose an interesting debate matchup.

Kerrey's presidential candidacy was a bit baffling from the start. After expressing no interest, he finally jumped in without much preparation in late September, and for weeks seemed to wander almost aimlessly across the political landscape searching for his message.

He was criticized, not unjustly, as basically a johnny-one-note on national health insurance.

Sometimes he could be moving and even poetic as he spoke of what his country had done to him, and then for him, in the war that cost him a leg, and of the future he sought. But other times he seemed unfocused on the stump, as if he wondered what he was doing.

But it isn't likely any candidate will run now without some form of national health insurance on his agenda, and Bob Kerrey can take much credit for that.

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