Ever since the winnable 2004 election, most Democrats have been fervently hoping that John Kerry would just give it up and go away, after permanently stowing his White House fantasies inside Al Gore’s lockbox.
Instead, he has stuck around, emailing news of his every move to activists and journalists nationwide, seemingly on a thrice-daily basis, in an effort to prove that if given another chance, he would be a much better candidate – that is to say, at the very least, a more verbally nimble candidate.
But it’s not so easy for an old pol to teach himself new tricks, and that brings us to yesterday’s incident, in which John Kerry put himself in a beribboned gift box and mailed himself to Karl Rove.
The gift card read, “Don't despair. I’m your October surprise.”
It’s highly debatable, of course, that Kerry’s latest characteristic outbreak of foot-in-mouth disease will be enough to reverse the meta-narrative of the ’06 election season – i.e., that the congressional races are a virtual referendum on President Bush and his demonstrably failed stewardship of the Iraq war – but his self-confessed “botched” joke about Bush and the troops has infuriated fatalistic Democrats everywhere. The reasons are clear: By making it appear that he was belittling the soldiers (which he did not intend to do), he gave the GOP a short-hand headline (to wit: "Kerry attacks U.S. troops").
The Republicans have spent weeks playing defense, flailing wildly and unsuccessfully at whatever scary enemy they could concoct: Osama bin Laden, Nancy Pelosi, John Conyers. But now the ’04 presidential nominee has come along, offering himself up as punching bag, as a reminder of everything that swing voters may not have liked about Democrats two years ago, and, sure enough, the GOP message machine (as evidenced by the umpteen emails that have landed in my box over the past 16 hours) has been only too happy to comply by taking the offensive.
In a moment captured on YouTube (further proof that no politician can afford to err in this era), here’s what Kerry said yesterday, at Pasadena City College: “You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. And if you don't, you get stuck in Iraq.”
Rove could not have written it better, because, in their view, it underscores their longstanding caricature of the Democratic party. They are now citing that sentence as further proof that Democrats are condescending elitists who malign our fighting men and women as people who don’t study hard, don’t do their homework, and are not smart. They can invoke that sentence to say that ’04 Democratic standard-bearer is branding the troops are losers who are fighting in Iraq only because they can’t cut it in civilian society.
Apparently, what Kerry meant to say was this joke aimed at Bush: “Do you know where you end up if you don’t study, if you aren’t smart, if you’re intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq. Just ask President Bush.”
One can plausibly argue, of course, that the GOP has a lot of gall to exploit Kerry’s botched sentence, given the fact that it’s the Bush White House and the Bush Pentagon that sent those troops into Iraq without sufficient body armor and without a rational postwar plan to secure the peace. Democrats can certainly contend – as they have been doing – that the congressional Republicans, by failing to hold this administration accountable, are the people who have truly been most disrespectful to the fighting men and women.
And perhaps that argument will still hold sway with the majority of voters next Tuesday. But, for the moment, what we have instead is the familiar spectacle of John Kerry trying to set things right and explain what he really meant to say – thereby taking up valuable air time and press coverage that might otherwise be focused on the GOP’s political woes.
Here he was this morning, looking for some kind of verbal exit strategy, on Don Imus’ radio show: “Look, everybody knows I botched a joke. It's not the first time anybody's done that, Don. Am I right?...I left out one word. I left out the word ‘us.’ ‘They got US stuck.’ Instead of that, I said, ‘They got stuck,’ and (the Republicans) are taking advantage of it…I said it was a botched joke. Of course, I'm sorry about a botched joke. You think I love botched jokes? I mean, it's pretty stupid…But you know what would screw it up is if we shift off the topic of Iraq. Iraq is what this is about. They know it. They're trying to change the topic. They want the topic to be about what they know was a small gaffe. Incidentally, how many times has the president made some kind of a gaff of one kind or another...”
The problem for Democrats is obvious: On a day when the news out of Iraq, is that Bush’s own military hierarchy views his "freedom agenda" as more imperiled by chaos and potential civil war than ever before – news that the Democrats might wish to see emphasized, as part of their ongoing bid to make the ’06 elections a referendum on the president – John Kerry is out in front, dominating the discourse, seeking once again to explain himself, this time by chasing after the elusive word us.
Some Democrats have already felt the need to distance themselves from Kerry (Nebraska Democratic candidate Scott Kleeb calls his remarks “disgraceful and insulting”), and Kerry himself has staged a retreat from the battle by canceling a scheduled appearance tonight in Philadelphia, apparently deciding that he didn’t want to put Democratic senatorial candidate Bob Casey Jr. on the spot.
And late this afternoon, he followed up his apology on the Imus show with a more abject apology: "As a combat veteran, I want to make it clear to anyone in uniform and to their loved ones: my poorly stated joke at a rally was not about, and never intended to refer to any troop.
I sincerely regret that my words were misinterpreted to wrongly imply anything negative about those in uniform, and I personally apologize to any service member, family member, or American who was offended."
Yet, even in that statement, he felt compelled to try to give himself some wiggle room, with his claim that his words were "misinterpreted." Uh, no. The words were interpreted correctly; he's the one who spoke them incorrectly.
One exasperated Democrat, a top fund-raising guy, said to me privately today that Kerry "should be sidelined. The Democrats have a great opportunity (next week), and they do not need to have it squandered by his mistakes."
In other words, at this point, what most Democrats nationwide would probably like to hear Kerry say is this:
“Despite all my careful planning, I have decided not to seek the 2008 presidential nomination. I was for it, before I was against it.”
On the flip side, a case can certainly be made that the Kerry flap is trivial, when compared with the troublesome facts on the ground in Iraq. One political veteran, coming to Kerry's defense last night on MSNBC's Hardball:
"What people care about in Iraq is not what John Kerry -- John Kerry lost a presidential election. The American public's already made that decision. What they care about is what's going on there and how we're going to deal with the situation, not some misspoken statement about whether or he thought the troops were ignorant or not, which I don't think, in any way, you could say he thought that. He misspoke."
Clearly that must have been some left-wing partisan armed with Democratic talking points, yes?
Well, no. That was former Bush pollster Matthew Dowd, one of the prime architects of the president's 2004 re-election victory.