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Kerry's Out, Thank Goodness

This column was written by John Nichols.
After a month that has seen more than a half-dozen of the Democratic Party's most prominent players announce plans to seek its presidential nomination — creating concern that coming debates would be too crowded to be contained on conventional television screens — the man the party actually ran for the presidency in 2004 has decided not to try again.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, who since conceding the last race has seemed at many turns to be preparing for another run, announced Wednesday that he does not plan to try to elbow his way into the 2008 competition with frontrunners Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.

This is a smart move by Kerry.

The mention of a second run by the wooden war vet provoked groans from Democrats around the country, who for the most part have come to embrace the view that Kerry lost in 2004 in large part because of a penchant for pulling punches rather than throwing them.

Never a favorite of grassroots activists, Kerry was nominated in 2004 as a resume candidate — soldier, state official, senator — rather than as a populist champion. As he battled for the nomination before the Iowa caucuses, the senator had seemed to have some fight in him. That inspired a measure of confidence among Democrats who were casting about for a candidate who, while he might not excite their passions, could dispatch President Bush.

As the nominee, however, Kerry struggled to define himself. Brooding and inclined toward diplomatic rhetoric, he responded too slowly and ineffectually to attacks on his war record by Karl Rove's "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth." And he ended up playing defense in a year when Democrats should have been on the attack.

Kerry was never really as bad as his more negative reviews. But he was never as good as Democratic strategists thought he could, and should, have been.

Much like Al Gore after the 2000 race, Kerry has done a far better job of opposing the Bush administration since the 2004 race finished. He has frequently dissented not only from the Republican president's proposals but from the tepid responses of his fellow Democrats. Last summer, Kerry worked with Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold to advance what at the time was an edgy proposal to establish a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq. And the Massachusetts senator has emerged as one of the steadiest critics of controversial presidential appointments and domestic policies.

Unlike Gore, however, Kerry has not yet been forgiven by the base. Rhetorical stumbles during the 2006 congressional campaign season reminded Democrats of everything that troubled them about Kerry. So it was no surprise when polls from early primary and caucus states found the former presidential nominee trailing Edwards, Obama, Clinton and others in the 2008 field. Indeed, there was so little support for a Kerry run that his decision to take a pass on the race is unlikely to have a major impact on the current competition, except in Massachusetts where officials and donors who were loyal to the senator will now be free to join other campaigns.

Kerry's decision to skip the fast-starting presidential contest will allow him to focus on what should be an easy Senate re-election bid next year. The Vietnam War hero also plans, according to former aides, to devote his energies to organizing grassroots opposition to the war in Iraq.

If Gore's example is instructive, Kerry's decision to take himself out of the running — and to focus on the task of stirring up antiwar sentiment — may finally make the Massachusetts senator something he never was as a candidate for the presidency: genuinely popular with the party faithful.

By John Nichols
Reprinted with permission from the The Nation