Being Different Isn't Enough
With his big primary victories, John Kerry has finally - after tottering over a chasm of defeat early on - become Lord of the Democratic Ring.
Over a few months, this once little-known senator has masterfully persuaded his party that he's the best candidate to beat George Bush. Now, in the next eight months, he must convince a large portion of the rest of the country that he can be the best US president.
The primaries and the presidential race serve different purposes. The first helps the party choose positions by eliminating candidates who emphasize particular issues. So the primaries have taught Kerry to be wary of strictly following Richard Gephardt's trade protectionism, Howard Dean's stance against the Iraq war, and John Edwards's war on the wealth gap.
A presidential race, in contrast, requires a candidate to emphasize more what he is for and less what he's against. Although every candidate deserves to have his record scrutinized, Kerry would serve voters better by not turning the vote into a referendum on Mr. Bush's record, especially since his own record of new initiatives in the Senate is skimpy, his flip-flops well-known, and his policy documents often vague. And he should go beyond just canned quips about how he would act differently on current issues facing the Bush White House.
Rather, the country must know where Kerry would take it over the next four (or eight) years, if he wins.
Only last week did he give a policy speech on national security, but most of that was criticism rather than proscription. Other than the character-defining record of his heroism in Vietnam, later anti-war activism, and senatorial experience, Kerry comes out of the primaries with no particular issue to clearly identify him.
Perhaps that was a safe choice in the softball primaries but now there's a hardball necessity for vision beyond a few lines on the stump, in debates, or through 30-second ads.
To take a cue from JFK, ask not what the country will do for John Kerry but what John Kerry can do for the country.
This isn't a horse race. The vote in November is a choice between two wagon trains heading toward different horizons. Both candidates need to point out their directions more than point at each other.
Kerry did not run well with those independents who could vote in the March 2 primaries. While he won over most Democrats in the end (largely on the image of "electability"), it's the rising mass of independents who await his vision thing.
Being different isn't enough. With the race really starting this week, Kerry can more clearly spell out how he would also make a difference.