Lately, the 2020 election reminds me less of the collective trauma that was 2016 and more of the first presidential contest I experienced as a voter: the 2004 race between an incumbent and much-reviled Republican, George W. Bush, and a Democratic hopeful, John Kerry, senator from Massachusetts. After primary frontrunner Howard Dean weird-screamed his way out of contention, Kerry easily sailed to the party’s nomination; commentators now believe that former Vice President Joe Biden, with a string of victories in the past few weeks, is building likewise unstoppable momentum.
You notice the parallels are not necessarily good news. I can tell you that as a college sophomore in the middle of the Bush regime, three years after 9/11, the country deep into twin invasions, I didn’t have any hope for Kerry’s safe, wooden style of campaigning. The 2000 election had been stolen, and I saw no reason it wouldn’t be again, whether through legal shenanigans or outright smears. I cringed at his uninspiring speeches and dreaded the day I would have to mail an absentee ballot with his name selected — my introduction to democratic duty just a symbolic swipe at a dumbass head of state I hated with all the passion of youth. What a waste, I thought.
After Bush won, the campus had its day of mourning, and I, too, luxuriated in the fine disappointment that is the birthright of self-identifying Democrats. But while I figured this to be within a pattern sure to repeat itself ad nauseam (my dad loves recounting all the losers he’s voted for in his life), it didn’t occur to me that the party base’s risk-averse attitude would, in time, produce increasingly weaker “safe” choices for president — Hillary Clinton, compromised from all angles, and now Biden, whose own supporters can’t name two of his policies. Through the prism of that history, Kerry looks like a firmer, not-so-embarrassing challenger. That the GOP had to attack him for his service record (Kerry was a decorated Navy veteran of the Vietnam War, and more than willing to condemn war crimes committed by U.S. forces there) was itself a measure of his formidable background. He also faced mockery for windsurfing. But, like… why?
Democrats can only dream of such a vigorous photo-op for the Biden, whose fitness, mental and otherwise, is already the target of Trumpworld attacks. Likewise, where Kerry was perceived as the clear victor in his debates with Bush, a night of Biden trying to finish a single sentence while Trump talks over him, unchecked by moderators, is frighteningly plausible. Progressives may detest the centrist politics of a Kamala Harris as much as Biden’s, but you have to admit that she’d be a stronger and more persuasive voice if — as the #Resistance bloc would argue — your sole objective is to beat the bad orange man.
Kerry was no agent of radical change, either on the stump or in his tenure as Secretary of State under Obama, yet he held basically decent liberal positions on gun control, abortion, immigration, LGBT rights and environmental impact. His incrementalism brought us to the Iran nuclear deal, and he signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, two accords Trump couldn’t wait to unravel.
None of this should allow us to forget — as the above statement reminds us — that Kerry fundamentally sucks. He’s ultra-wealthy, and he has always worked within the gears of a system that continues to fail Americans. All the same, he’s a relic of an age before Democrats took the mask off, and that may account for some confusing nostalgia on our part. However goofy and out-of-touch he was, he didn’t tell voters, straight to their faces, to fuck off forever. He was capable, at the very least, of reaching out to young people — instead of publicly writing them off as whiny and entitled.
Neither his cautious ideology nor statesmanship will be remembered in the long run — his 2004 defeat was an awful thing to endure (and we still haven’t learned any lesson from it) — and even so, you’re left to wonder if he wasn’t the best hope in a sad line of similarly doomed candidates. Someone without excess baggage or scandals, and with an adequate grasp of words and issues. Someone it wasn’t humiliating to watch in the ring.
Of course, Kerry has already endorsed and started campaigning for Biden, because that’s how this works. Anything else would be a grave disloyalty to the machine that once elevated him to the status of a presidential contender. I wouldn’t be shocked, however, to hear that his enthusiasm is dulled by disbelief at how the qualifications for establishment standard-bearer have softened since his White House bid. It used to be that selling out and phoning it in was almost an art. Now they can’t even fake that much.