WASHINGTON — In relaunching his presidential campaign on Tuesday, John Kerry did not just recalibrate his campaign. He recalibrated his position on the war in Iraq. In his announcement speech, he claimed that he had voted just to "threaten" war with Iraq, which is an odd way to characterize voting in favor of a resolution that explicitly authorizes the president to go to war if and when he pleases.
Any congressional authorization to go to war is, of course, a threat. But an authorization to go to war is far more than that. Indeed, so absolute was the grant of authority in the Iraq resolution that the president was not even required to notify Congress until (up to) 48 hours after launching the war — 48 hours after Kerry would have started watching it on TV.
Kerry's revisionism on the war is not just cover for a postwar that has not gone well — the reason for Dick Gephardt's recent reversal on Iraq. For Kerry, it is a reflection of an ambivalence that he has had right from the beginning. He voted to authorize the use of force, but gave speech after speech criticizing and agonizing over the president's "rush to war" — another oddity considering the fact that it is hard to think of a war that had a run-up more drawn out and deliberate.
Kerry's ambivalence has not served him well as a candidate. He was supposed to be the front-runner. He was supposed to be the shoo-in in New Hampshire, back yard to his own Massachusetts. But the latest poll shows him a stunning 20 points behind Howard Dean.
On paper, Kerry has all the attributes: senatorial stature, dynastic marriage, square jaw and a sterling military record that he put on lavish display in his announcement speech. What he lacks, however, is passion. And passion is a currency of the current Democratic primary campaign.
A solid record, a good program and judicious judgment serve you well when there is no incumbent. When Reagan retired in 1988 and Clinton in 2000, the Democrats nominated judicious, thoughtful, passionless (Kerry-like) candidates.
But 2004 is a recall election. The Democratic primary activists and liberals have rarely been more energized by their antipathy to a sitting Republican president. There has not been such disdain, resentment and outright hatred of a president since the high Nixon days.
The activists and liberals who dominate the primary process want desperately to beat Bush. They, of course, want to beat him at the polls, but more than anything they want the pleasure of beating him with a stick. Howard Dean is the stick.
Dean is this campaign's Mr. Intensity. He has always had the rolled-sleeve, in-your-face, anti-Bush passion. That might have gotten him noticed, but when he stumbled onto Iraq, it got him fame.
More accurately, the issue came to him. As war loomed, he recognized its political potency and quite brilliantly exploited it as the unequivocal, unambivalent opponent of the war.
The other candidates, remembering how Democrats had found themselves on the wrong side of the Gulf War, were more circumspect. And on April 9, when the statue of Saddam came down and Dean averred that the fall of Saddam was "probably" a good thing, that circumspection appeared wise. Dean appeared deeply damaged by his gamble. But as American fortunes in Iraq have declined, Dean's fortunes at home have risen.
Does that mean that Dean is the presumptive Democratic candidate? No. First, the Democratic establishment may not want to be driven over a cliff by a left-running Dean. If Dean beats Gephardt in Gephardt's Iowa back yard and then beats Kerry in New Hampshire, the party establishment may make a stand in the South, the place where early outside insurgencies — John McCain in 2000, Gary Hart in 1984 — are traditionally turned back in both parties.
Second, Dean's passion is well-suited to the early campaign, conducted largely under the national radar. With the Democratic liberal activists white hot, Dean's passion plays perfectly in the one-on-one, town-hall-meeting, retail-level campaign so far.
Dean's problem is television, famously a cool medium. Dean has not done well there, neither in the early South Carolina debate nor in his widely derided "Meet the Press" interview, where he was seen as testy, and therefore a failure.
As the campaign becomes less retail and more national — and therefore more televised — Dean's rise will be challenged. Kerry would be right for the part, if his lack of heat and passion does not sink him before he even gets to that point.
Washington Post Writers Group