January 20, 2004,
A lot of light was shed by the performances of five Democratic candidates after the Iowa results came in. General Wesley Clark pulled rank on John Kerry, insisting that Kerry as a military man was far lower in rank than he, and talking arrogantly and incessantly down to Senator Robert Dole, his opponent in the "conversation" they were supposed to be having on Larry King Live, as if Dole were not one of the bravest veterans the nation has known, and as if the senator's political observations counted for nothing.
General Clark is very full of himself.
Dick Gephardt was the same classy, down-to-earth, rooted public servant we have always known, surrounded by family and friends, a happy man in what must have been a very painful defeat and at the same time both quite admirable and a little boring in the constancy of his devotion to an older labor union view of the world. It's hard not to like that guy, and respect him, and thank him.
Senator John Edwards is a lot more fluent than I had expected eloquent even and for a trial lawyer who has feasted royally on smarmy lawsuits, wonderfully hypocritical in his ability to talk as if he were not one of the richest of the rich elites he rhetorically attacks. He described the "two Americas," the rich America and the ordinary America, and promised to bring down the first as if he were not one of the shadiest parts of it. In his boyish enthusiasm he reminded me of the young, unflappable Bill Clinton. His view of rich and poor came right out of 19th-century socialism, with no awareness of how the vast majority of Americans have experienced the poverty from which their families have arisen, and the opportunities for movement out of poverty that this nation so richly sets before them. He showed no grasp of the fact that the ranks of the poor in America are nowadays refreshed every decade by some 9-10 million immigrants from among the poorest of the world and that within less than ten years most of them are no longer poor. In Edwards's worldview, the continuing existence of about twelve percent of the population in poverty is an affront to nature itself; he doesn't see that poverty is the condition in which almost all come here, and continually move up from.
In general, the Democratic candidates very wealthy as four of these five are seem quite confused about the question of wealth and poverty. They seem especially oblivious to those habits of character, skill, and policy that create new industries, new jobs, wealth, and constant move upward out of poverty. They seem blind to entrepreneurship, especially to small business. Rich themselves, they use the poor as a rhetorical device for gaining power. They don't actually do much to help the poor out of poverty.
Howard Dean almost ran out onto the stage stripping off his jacket, swinging his arms, and wowing his young audience with his refusal to quit the fight, showing bravado, if not spirited defiance. He can be quite a demagogue. I liked one touch particularly when he grabbed an American flag from someone in front of him and waved it around with a brief flourish. It seemed so odd for him to be doing that. He has not seemed like a flag-waver, has he? Earlier, there was a moment in which he was more than a little hostile toward the ways of the press, in an unpleasant exchange with Chris Matthews over "what went wrong." So his bravado in bounding out onto the stage just a few minutes later, as if he were really happy with the results, was quite a remarkable change of persona, accomplished in so little time.
I had been afraid all day that John Kerry would do very well, let alone that he might win. In my mind, he is the best of the Democratic field. He has a ponderously slow way of talking that can seem deliberate and presidential I once watched Newt Gingrich demolish Kerry on substantive points in a debate before a European audience, even as Kerry far more impressed the Europeans by his imperious bearing and slow speech. In Iowa, Kerry was clever enough to attack Howard Dean by proposing to lower taxes on the middle class (i.e., the self-identification of most Americans), whereas Dean by repealing the current tax cuts would dramatically raise them. So Kerry is at least one twist of the screw more clever than the other Democrats; he is stealing Bush's clothes with every word he utters. He is running as a tax cutter. His health-care plan has the same design: to cut the costs to the middle class and (he is again clever enough to say) to business owners. Putting money in the hands of the middle class, not by welfare, but by cuts in taxes and healthcare costs, is the tribute smart Democrats pay to the Reagan revolution. Kerry conjured up the vision of his own heroic war record accompanying him when and if he debates President Bush, and his own stature as a soldier, and perhaps even his own lanky height and ponderous manner. I was thinking in advance that John Kerry would be the most formidable Democrat, by far, for President Bush.
But then in his post-victory remarks, Kerry went on and on and on, boringly, without the lift and eloquence and fluency of even John Edwards. And for as long as the television cameras stayed on him he never once really thanked his wife and his daughters. Not only did he not show the visible and touching warmth that Dick Gephardt expressed for each of his children by name, and showed toward his "Jane...Jane!", turning toward her with a fullness of emotion that was too rich for words; but even, so far as I heard, Senator Kerry gave his loved ones no public notice at all in those important (and long) opening moments. Am I doing him an injustice? I think my memory is reliable here; for certain, the sense of Gephardt as a family man was powerful, but John Kerry seemed to me like a loner.
His daughters had earlier spoken to a rather tough Chris Matthews, and were plainly both loving and close to their father, as well as intelligent and wonderfully honest in making distinctions, wanting to say exactly what they meant, and no more a real tribute to their father. I do not doubt that John Kerry loves his family. In the excitement of the moment, though, he just was not as perfect and poised as a first-class candidate really ought to have been. His rhetorical carelessness surprised me.
It was also a grave mistake for the organizers of his rally to allow a highly visible row of bright red, round posters celebrating abortion to stand just in front of the joyous candidate, stark against a sea of blue Kerry posters.
Make no mistake. Kerry is an intelligent competitor. He will be tough. But he has the misfortune to be committed to an unrealistic ideology, which prevents him from seeing certain basic facts of economic and international life. His foreign policy is, roughly, that of France. His unwillingness to confront the causes of the Clinton recession, and of the Bush recovery, is neither generous nor shrewd.
In short, what most hurts the Democrats is not the quality of their candidates but the blinders imposed by their ideology, both in economic and in foreign affairs.
Kerry will be much tougher than Dean, who has shown himself to be an arrogant charlatan although a smart and clever one. But watching Kerry closely, I lost my fear of him.
Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak's own website is www.michaelnovak.net.