Mr. Kerry is our choice

February 29, 2004

THOSE WHO HAVE followed John Kerry's long Senate career notice something different about the Massachusetts Democrat these days: a big, toothy grin. He's not by nature a smiling guy, and he's far from the backslapping schmoozer favored in that chummy club.

The change in Senator Kerry's countenance seems to stem not so much from delight at his success so far in the Democratic presidential primaries as from an attempt to blunt the one clear advantage held over him by his last remaining major competitor for the nomination.

Call it the charisma factor. North Carolina's John Edwards has got it in spades; a multi-megawatt smile that radiates both light and warmth, an orator's talent for the well-chosen word and an actor's gift for connecting with his audience. But Sen. Kerry is by far a better choice for Maryland Democrats in Tuesday's primary because he offers more of just about everything else Americans want in a president.

Mr. Kerry, 60, brings two decades of principled leadership in the Senate, a nimble familiarity with arcane foreign and domestic issues, a thoughtful approach to policy-making that defies easy labels, and -- of particular importance in this post-9/11 era -- firsthand experience with the grit and gore of military service as a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War.

Mr. Bush, who calls himself a "war president" and seeks to exploit fears of future terrorist attacks, is already trying to portray Sen. Kerry as weak and indecisive. But the Kerry record makes the charge laughable.

Mr. Kerry's military heroics were but a prelude to an even more courageous role in organizing his fellow veterans to form the vanguard of the ultimately successful war protest movement. His years in the Senate have been spent in the considerable shadow cast by the senior senator from Massachusetts, Edward M. Kennedy. Yet Mr. Kerry carved a niche as an expert on foreign policy and went his own way in support of deficit reduction and free trade. He was an early opponent of costly and outmoded weapons systems later junked by Mr. Bush's father.

In recent years, Mr. Kerry took the lead in several high-profile environmental fights, including a successful campaign to block oil and gas drilling in Alaska's wildlife refuge, and a futile effort to convince even some Democratic colleagues to demand greater fuel efficiency from SUVs.

Mr. Edwards, 50, argues the virtue of an outsider's view. But the Oval Office is no place for a novice. Even surrounded by veterans of past Republican administrations, Mr. Bush has found on-the-job training difficult. What's more, the North Carolina senator sets off alarms with his reckless rhetoric on NAFTA that suggests that scrapping or somehow rewriting such trade agreements can turn back the tide of jobs overseas. He has succeeded in putting Mr. Kerry on the defensive on the issue, though both senators know America's only choice is to prepare for the world of ever-expanding global trade -- not run from it.

There's some evidence that Mr. Kerry's success in the primaries so far can be attributed to the bandwagon effect: Democrats want a winner; he looks like winner because he's winning. Yet his campaign stumbled at the start, and he had to prove his mettle in fighting his way back to the front of what was once a Democratic field of 10. He's earned the nomination.

But to be successful against Mr. Bush in November, Sen. Kerry would be wise to borrow more from his primary competitor than his ready smile. Mr. Edwards' message resonates because he has come up with an apt phrase to describe the result of Mr. Bush's economic policies: "two Americas" -- one for the privileged few who get whatever they want, and another one for everybody else.

Mr. Kerry says the heart of his campaign is a proposal to reverse Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans in order to address such bread-and-butter issues as job training, health care and education. To make that a winner, the senator needs to find an empathetic rallying cry to fire up voters with the belief that he can readjust the balance so that nearly all Americans will find life better under his leadership.

It's a tall order for a reserved Boston Brahmin: calming the fear of extraordinary danger that will be sown by the White House, while revealing himself enough to show that he is a regular guy who understands the travails of everyday life.

But he is clearly up to the challenge and he's the best Democrat in the field to take it on.

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