Kerrey still an enigma to his fellow Democrats ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- Once again, Democrats are asking a now-familiar question: What's with Bob Kerrey?

Now that the suspense is over, with the Nebraska senator pulling President Clinton back from the precipice with his pivotal vote for deficit reduction, the enigma of Bob Kerrey is getting the couch treatment anew. Why did he seem to go out of his way to rap the plan while finally agreeing to vote for it?

Ever since his election to the Senate in 1988, Kerrey has marched to his own drummer -- sometimes out of cadence. His political brethren didn't quite know what to make of a governor who declined to seek re-election in 1986 after only one term, despite a popularity rating of 70 percent.

His track record, in addition to running marathons with an artificial leg he picked up after losing his own in the Vietnam War, included vocal opposition to that war upon his return, while remaining an outspoken patriot.

When he opposed the use of force to liberate Kuwait and denounced a proposed amendment banning flag-burning, no one dared rise to challenge his patriotism. But many wondered what made Bob Kerrey tick.

In 1991, after saying flatly he would not seek the Democratic presidential nomination, he plunged in late, in what seemed to be a case of leaping before looking. In the New Hampshire primary, he ran hot and cold -- mostly cold, as he appeared unable to get a clear focus on his message.

He made national health-care insurance the centerpiece of his campaign but had difficulty making the issue relevant to voters who had lost their jobs or feared their loss in a state hard hit by the 1991-92 recession. "I failed to get it clearly inside a larger economic issue," he said later.

He was reluctant to talk about his war experience for which he won the Medal of Honor as a Navy Seal, and brought himself to do so chiefly in the context of how he owed his life to government health care still denied to many Americans.

The low point of that campaign was a moment in Georgia when he lashed out at Bill Clinton, saying the Arkansas governor never could be elected because of his draft record, and would be "opened up like a soft peanut" by the Republicans in the fall campaign. But he ended up retracting that prediction and supporting his rival.

In advance of the Democratic nominating convention, Kerrey made Clinton's short list of prospective running mates. Later, after Clinton had chosen Al Gore, Kerrey mused that his own status as a divorced man may have been a factor. The cameo on the ensuing successful bus tour, he observed wryly, "would have been Bill, Hillary and Bob, instead of Bill and Hillary and Bob and his wife."

In the deficit-reduction drama, Kerrey was no Dennis DeConcini, seeking program concessions that would help the pill go down easier with his constituents. Rather, he delayed his support because, he indicated later, Clinton wasn't being tough enough on the taxpayers -- wasn't really calling for the "shared sacrifice" he had said he would ask of them as a candidate last year.

Kerrey chided Clinton for not demanding more from middle-income voters than the 4.3-cent tax increase on a gallon of gasoline -- the limit that another senatorial hijacker, Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, insisted on. But in the end, Kerrey said, he trusted Clinton to do better more than he trusted the naysaying Republicans who were marching in lockstep against the deficit-reduction package.

There are those who say the Nebraska maverick hurt his future presidential chances with his agonizing over how to vote, and then his support of Clinton only while figuratively holding his nose. But just as persuasive a case can be made that Kerrey demonstrated integrity in spelling out the deficiencies in the package that the White House sought to blur.

As Clinton moves on to his next major test -- health-care reform -- much more can be expected to be heard from Kerrey. He has met frequently with Hillary Clinton and, while moving closer to administration thinking, still has differences on how the plan should be regulated. And it is already abundantly clear that he doesn't put much stock in the old Sam Rayburn advice that to get along, go along.

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