Kerry adopting the rhetoric of a D.C. outsider
BATON ROUGE, La. -- The Bruce Springsteen anthem, his theme song, was back -- ''No retreat, baby, no surrender" -- and people were on their feet before his speech began. Wading through the crowd as the music boomed, Senator John F. Kerry looked like a presidential candidate again: smiling, grasping for outstretched arms, and offering thumbs-up as he made his way to the stage.
But the attendance was a fraction of the mobs that the Massachusetts Democrat drew in his final campaign rallies last fall. Gone was his stump speech railing against President Bush's Iraq war policy, the sluggish economy, and the Republican agenda; even mentions of Kerry's Senate career and Vietnam War service had disappeared.
Instead, Kerry -- a veteran politician who has held office for 21 years -- took off his suit jacket and roamed a small stage in Louisiana's Old State Capitol to push a new message: Get angry at Washington.
''Washington seems more and more out of touch with the difficulties the average family is facing," Kerry told the crowd of about 150 last week in Baton Rouge. ''Go out of here, take some anger and a little bit of outrage at the fact that Washington is not dealing with the real concerns of our country."
Six months after his presidential bid ended in defeat, Kerry is on another cross-country campaign. This time, he is running against the political establishment.
It is a striking transformation for someone who has been identified with that establishment for so long, but a change he and his aides insist is sincere. And while Kerry has repeatedly pledged to remain relevant following his presidential campaign, the intensity of his efforts has been surprising, particularly because recent failed presidential nominees have entered reclusive periods after their campaigns ended.
In essence, Kerry is trying to reignite a fire that never quite raged for his presidential bid on behalf of a domestic agenda he is pushing in Congress. He is shooting regular e-mail updates to his network of 3 million supporters. His new political action committee bought a large ad in tomorrow's USA Today that accuses Bush and GOP leaders of ignoring soaring gas prices, children without health insurance, and the lack of quality jobs with good wages.
''They think it's all about them," the ad states above pictures of Bush, House majority leader Tom DeLay and Senate majority leader Bill Frist. ''Don't let them forget about what really matters to you. . . . Make Washington stand up for the needs and values of America's families."
It may seem odd for a man who has been in the Senate for more than two decades -- and who has never been known for his common touch -- to rail against aloof politicians. His presidential campaign focused more on his own record, particularly his service in Vietnam, than on the shortcomings of Washington. The latter tactic was more the realm of Howard Dean, now the Democratic Party chairman, who had pledged to ''take back America" during his bid for the presidential nomination.
Kerry insists that he simply wants to drum up support for his ''Kids First" bill, which would provide healthcare coverage to all children -- although Kerry acknowledges it is a long shot in the Republican-controlled Congress. Just below the surface, though, Kerry is trying to rehabilitate his public image as an entrenched insider, in case another national campaign is in his future.
Donna Brazile, a Democratic consultant who was Vice President Al Gore's campaign manager when he ran for president in 2000, said it is a good move for Kerry to try to parlay his new profile as a former candidate for the White House into a signature issue. He could bring more attention to an important policy issue, Brazile said, and expand the range of issues that voters identify with him.
''He has enormous political capital with various groups and constituencies, and he's one of the most important leaders in our party," she said. ''As John Kerry continues to reflect on 2004 -- and explore options for 2008 -- it's important that he understands that people didn't really know John Kerry in the last campaign."
But an image makeover figures to be difficult for a man who spent as much time in the public eye -- and in public office -- as Kerry has.
''He's the last politician that people are going to buy as an outsider. That dog won't hunt," said Jeffrey Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University. ''John Kerry ran for president, and he has a long record in politics. He just doesn't come across as an outsider."
Still, he was greeted enthusiastically in Baton Rouge, where most of the crowd was drawn from Kerry's e-mail list of supporters. Some made it clear that the senator would have to overcome deep skepticism if he mounts another presidential campaign.
Frank Vine, a 54-year-old school psychologist who came to the Baton Rouge rally, said he likes the new message but wonders if Kerry could ever take the presidency. ''I'd support him in a heartbeat, but I want someone electable," said Vine, who lives in the Baton Rouge suburb of Zachary. ''We haven't had much luck with Northern liberals."
In Baton Rouge, Kerry spent a half-hour blasting away at tax cuts for the rich, sensationalism in the media, and elected leaders whose ''tomfoolery" and ''fakery" have left them woefully ignorant of the needs of their constituents. Kerry brought the same message to three other audiences last week, in a swing that took him to Seattle, Miami, and Minneapolis.
Although Kerry said he was not in Louisiana to talk about his loss to Bush, the senator was clearly still smarting from the 2004 campaign. He proudly noted that he received 10 million more votes than President Clinton did during his 1996 reelection campaign and suggested that terrorism warnings sounded in the midst of the last campaign may have been exaggerated to help Bush.
''Fight back against the lies, fight back against the distortions," Kerry implored the crowd. ''In the last campaign, there was an unbelievable amount of fear put out there -- 'war on terror, war on terror, war on terror.' How many alerts have we had since the election?"
Kerry insists that he is campaigning only to pass the Kids First bill, not to advance his political career. His run for the White House, he said, taught him that people feel a deep disconnect with government, and he is trying to harness the power of his supporters toward a productive endeavor.
''We had enormous energy, and I don't want that energy to dissipate in this country," Kerry said in an interview shortly after the Baton Rouge rally. ''I'm doing what I can do now, given the lessons that I've learned, given the asset that we've built up in terms of people and supporters. I'd be irresponsible sitting self-indulgently worrying about what happened."
So he is keeping up a busy schedule in recent weeks, traveling not only to states that supported him but to states that voted decisively for Bush: Texas, Georgia, and Florida, along with Louisiana. His events are often coordinated with ''thank-you" receptions for his supporters and fund-raisers for local candidates.
Kerry is presenting his children's healthcare plan as a simple choice for Congress: Either make permanent the recent tax cuts for those earning more than $300,000 a year, or use the cost of that tax cut to guarantee healthcare for all children, mainly through Medicaid. That, he said, is a true question of values.
''If we grow this from community to community, we can build something that will put this on the political agenda," Kerry said in Louisiana. ''We need to get everybody, all across this country, putting this simple choice to America. And it's a fundamental values choice. If you can't start by insuring kids first instead of a greater big tax cut, what can you do to assert the morality of your nation?"
Rick Klein can be reached at email@example.com.