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John Kerry: Small Government, Big Comeback
by Jonathan David Morris
21 January 2004

In September John Kerry was pronounced dead on arrival.  How did he do it?


How did he do it?

That's the question folks find themselves asking now. John Kerry was running eight-tenths of a mile behind Howard Dean for months. He couldn't make headway no matter the methods he tried. Indeed, he seemed to try everything:

-- He got foulmouthed for Rolling Stone.

-- He drove a Harley onto Jay Leno's set.

-- He puffed an imaginary dragon for Pete Yarrow.

-- He even had the forethought to fight in Vietnam.

And yet, in spite of it all, nothing stuck. John Kerry was thought to be dead on arrival. In fact, I said so myself in September, when I said Democrats needed to "get over Kerry already." When he took out a mortgage to keep the dream afloat in late December, his fate seemed clear: It was time to stick a fork in his $75 coif. For all intents and purposes, this turkey was done.

But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Hawkeye State. John Kerry caught up with his potential, and caught his second wind, ending up with darn near 40 percent of the vote by the time Iowans went to bed. Conversely, Dean failed to crack 20.

Which brings me back to the question up top: How did Kerry do it?

How did this man -- knocked off message for so many months that one rightly noticed he didn't initially have one -- manage to get himself back in the game?

Some might say Kerry's return to glory has to do with Dr. Dean's apparent lack of electability. Pundits have said for months the former Vermont governor wouldn't fare well against George W. Bush in a general election, and for those folks his flop in Iowa represents the culmination of that fear. But this premise is even more annoying than the phrase "former Vermont governor." Why? Because it's folklore. Maybe that's how it works in Honah Lee, but this is middle America, and Dean's neither Jackie Paper nor a paper tiger. His "$100 Revolution" is real. His appeal is real (was real?). If you like a candidate, you're going to vote for him -- and you're going to prove him electable in so doing.

Another theory is that Dean doomed himself in Iowa with something he said on Canadian TV four years ago. His remarks, conveniently unearthed mere days before the big dance: "If you look at the caucuses system, they are dominated by special interests, on both sides and both parties... I can't stand there, listening to everybody else's opinion for eight hours about how to fix the world."

It's hard to say whether this had any real effect on Dean's showing, but it's certainly possible given the conversational nature of the caucuses he inferred he didn't have time for. But that's surface stuff anyway. Look at it in context. He "can't stand there, listening." He tells an Iowan voter at an open forum to "sit down, you've had your say." He even jokes -- in a serious discussion on media regulation -- that he'd break up Fox "on ideological grounds." No wonder voters got the jitters once they hopped in their cars on a cold caucus night. For a man whose reputation is built on being an outsider, he sure seemed willing to squash dissent in the closing days of the Iowa campaign.

This, more than anyone might care to admit, helped Kerry win.

But, then, the man of the evening was haunted late in the game by ancient remarks of his own.

As revealed by online scribe Matt Drudge, the Massachusetts senator went on record in '96 proposing -- get this -- smaller government. Gasp! "I think we can reduce the size of Washington," Kerry had said. Geez, you think? "Get rid of the Energy Department. Get rid of the Agriculture Department, or at least render it three-quarters the size it is today; there are more agriculture bureaucrats than there are farmers in this country. We can probably meld the Labor and Education departments because the job of both is so symbiotic today."

Now, here's what gets me: The very cynicism, the very disdain for everyday people, with which these particular quotes were selected. I mean, we all know why this hit the press just days before the caucuses. The L.A. Times didn't talk up Arnold's exploits on the eve of election for the sake of lonely ladies living in or around Sacramento. Nor did Kerry's remarks surface to help him win favor with farmhands. All's fair in love and war. Again, though, the last minute trickery isn't what's troubling -- it's the bad buzz the release of these remarks was meant to engineer.

Dean spokeswoman Tricia Enright said, "Teachers and farmers in Iowa will be disappointed to hear that Senator Kerry wanted to dismantle the Department of Agriculture and gut the Department of Education." She added, "That's not the kind of change that Iowans are looking for."

The keyword is "disappointed." Iowans will be disappointed, she says. Well, if they're expecting something, sure, of course they'll pout when they don't get their way. That's the principle by which politicians rule. Scoring with voters is easy. Just promise them something. Anything. It doesn't matter what. They won't be disappointed, and neither will you.

"Iowa's a rural state," caucusgoers were expected to say. "Rural states have farms, and farms have agriculture, and John Kerry... well, John Kerry doesn't even like agriculture. Wait a minute. I live in Iowa. John Kerry doesn't like me!"

Yes, by having so much as suggested smaller government, Kerry was painted to be an uncaring, insensitive man. I suppose, by this standard, George Bush will be called the same thing unless he moves forward with his occupation of Mars. He wouldn't want to slight Martian-Americans, after all. Not in an election year.

I can't be the only one who's offended by the fact that small government's supposed to offend voters, can I?

Maybe I can. Kerry's own campaign, after all, was quick to reply to the '96 remarks that he "takes a back seat to no one" -- in the words of spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter -- when it comes to "protecting America's farmers." This time, the keyword is "protecting." The people need protection, we're told, and candidates will do anything -- from riding a bike on late night TV to dropping f-bombs in the pages of pop culture rags -- to prove they can be trusted with the job.

John Kerry says on his Web site that he's "prepared to fight with all my energy" on our behalf. Howard Dean writes on his that he has "a proven track record of... fighting the good fight." Wesley Clark, likewise, has an "ability to fight for his people." And as for Joe Lieberman, "he's continued to lead... and to fight for what's right for America" "in the Senate over the last 14 years" -- this after "fight[ing] for African-Americans' right to vote," and "fighting for the people of his state as Attorney General." I don't know about you, but that sure seems to me like a whole lot of fighting.

That's the name of the game, though. "I'm going to fight for you," they say. Well, here's a crazy idea: Don't. Let us fight for ourselves. It costs us money when you do it.

Ah, but who am I fooling? John Kerry's win proves he's a fighter. It's a shame, really. He might've had my vote.

Jonathan David Morris is a political satirist based in New Jersey. His website is Read JDM
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