This is not to say that Kerry doesn't deserve his near nominee status. He has proved the most solid of the bunch. He kept his screeches private, even when his prospects were being ridiculed, and worked hard to overcome his inner patrician. He relearned the English language by endlessly fielding questions in town meetings. He has showed his intelligence and experience. But Kerry still has weaknesses as a candidate. His message isn't as positive or optimistic as it might be. His weathered sobriety has a dour, cautious tinge to it. He is a warrior but not a very happy one.
Kerry's best lineshis only memorable lines, in facthave been testosterone-laden attacks on the President: "I know something about aircraft carriers for real, Mr. President" and "This Administration has run the most reckless, arrogant, inept and ideological foreign policy of modern history" and, of course, "Bring it on." The Senator doesn't do so well describing how he would clean up the mess in Iraq or at home. He has the regulation roster of plans and programs; some, like his energy-independence plan, are quite good. But he hasn't yet figured out how to explain them simply, and too often he resorts to the most ancient and threadbare Democratic nostrums: "Health care is not a privilege. It is a right" and "I will go to the United Nations ... and turn over a new page in America's relations with the world."
A tussle with John Edwards would be the perfect antidote for Kerry's weaknesses. It would be lovely to see the two of them debate. Edwards is Kerry's bookend as a candidate. He is too shiny by half, inexperienced in foreign policy and uncomfortable on the attack (even against the President), but there is a classic American self-improved sunniness to the man, an optimism that leavens his slightly overwrought us-against-them populism. Edwards' campaign has been distinguished by a carefully calibrated and easily explained series of positions on domestic policy issues. After describing a problem, Edwards brightens and says, "Here's what we're gonna do about that."
And almost involuntarily, his audiences are swept up in his enthusiasm. Edwards' solutions are not the usual Democratic Party pap. He does not overpromise: his College for Everyone plan demands that poor students take part-time jobswaiting tables, sweeping floors, unloading trucksin return for tuition assistance. "I did it," he says, "and it didn't hurt me any."
So why not a Two Johns debate? Well, there's all the underbrush cluttering the Democratic field. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton still wander about, despite the ridiculousness of their candidacies. Howard Dean, a sad figure now, is intent on remaining around until next week's Wisconsin primary. Wesley Clark has a better claim to the stage. He won Oklahoma and has finished second in three other states, but his candidacy turned venomous last week with a series of overcooked attacks on Kerry and, especially, Edwards, and he would be a less reliable debate partner for the front runner. Which raises the obvious question: What's in it for Kerry?
The Senator from Massachusetts remains a stranger to much of the country. He is at his best under fire (without a crisis, he slips into elitist autopilot), and he is a strong debater. Edwards' sunny solutions would force Kerry to edit his prolix gloominess. If the two stuck to the issues and away from personal nastinessas is likely, given their mutual respectboth might prosper. In any case, these primaries deserve a more satisfying, less truncated conclusion. Voters in states like New York, California and Florida, who cast their ballots in March, will probably be left to ratify a choice already made for them. And the Democratic Party could use any excuse to keep a very successful show on the road.