I want to make one thing clear: I never thought John Kerry was a bad presidential candidate. I was a very early supporter of his. I never much liked Howard Dean. Now, of course, I would have been a supporter of Dick Gephardt or Dennis Kucinich. But then, I really liked Kerry. I even read his stupid campaign biography! And since then, of course, I’ve done my own research. And by my calculations, Bush had a built-in advantage as big as the one that his father had when he ran against Dukakis in 1988. And it was almost as big as the one Clinton had over Dole in 1996 and Obama had over Romney in 2012. Just the same, there is one way that Kerry was a weak candidate — which I will get to in a moment.
But according to Matt Yglesias, a lot of people remember Kerry as a bad candidate, If Hillary Clinton Is the Next John Kerry, That’s Good News for Democrats. It’s an interesting article, but kind of shallow. All it talks about is how Kerry actually did somewhat better than would be expected given the economic fundamentals. I was expecting some information on demographics. I suspect that just the change in the composition of the American electorate would have changed the election. If John Kerry had received just 120,000 more votes in Ohio, he would have become president. (This has made me start to rethink my position on economic fundamentals, which I plan to write about soon.)
Yglesias thinks that there are three reasons why many people think that Kerry was a bad candidate: (1) he lost; (2) people think Bush should have been easy to beat; and (3) most people didn’t like Kerry that much — they picked him as the “electable” candidate. I don’t think those second two make any sense at all. Back then, Karl Rove had this reputation for being some kind of political magician. People may have thought Bush was an idiot — but it was an idiot savant. We might not have thought he could run a country, but we knew he could campaign. As for the second point, it is almost never the case that partisans are really excited by their candidates. The last time that happened was in 1980 with the Republican Party.
I think people remember Kerry as a poor candidate because he lost. And that’s the only reason. What happens is that all the bad things stick out. There was his style of speech, to start with. Had he been a two term president, that style of speech would be remembered today as the very definition of “presidential.” But he didn’t even win one term, so it is remembered as awkward and pompous. There was the sailboarding. That is a clear sign of virility, but because he lost, now people remember it the way Republicans tried to spin it — as something strange. And there were actual mistakes that would be forgotten had he won. For example, there was the strange decision to not mention George W Bush at the convention. I still don’t know what that was about. On the other side of things, people don’t remember his great performance in the first presidential debate.
But there was a way to win that campaign. (Given what happened in 2008, it is probably best the Democrats did not win.) According to Lynn Vavreck’s book, The Message Matters, the only way for the Democratic Party to have won in 2004 was to change the subject from the economy. (I said this same thing about Romney in 2012.) When the economy is improving, the out-party just can’t make the case that the economy would grow even faster if only we “threw the bum out!” If the Democrats had nominated Dean, he could have made the campaign about the Iraq War. And he could have become president. The problem is that Dean really wasn’t a very good candidate. We needed Kerry — but without his vote for the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq.
Otherwise, Yglesias is right: Kerry was a strong candidate. I will be happy if Clinton is as good.