Put the Two Johns in the Ring

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John Kerry was annoyed. "I need some food, guys," he huffed at staff, in a moment captured by ABC News. "I can't thrive on nothing." But then, everyone associated with the Democratic primaries seemed slightly annoyed last week. And flu-ridden and exhausted and discombobulated by a hypercompressed schedule that forced sleepless, instantaneous decisions about the most basic political issues—scheduling, spending and, for some, quitting. A strange existential distortion had taken hold of the process. It seemed near an end without ever having crystallized. The candidates had debated ceaselessly without having a single legitimate debate, one that would have directly tested the two or three finalists. Party chair Terry McAuliffe was thrilled that the battle was nearly over. But why rush to end a good thing? The primaries have revivified the party, but the Democrats may now be left with a candidate who has not been completely vetted or honed for the fall campaign, with a party base of lemmings who never had the opportunity to consider their choices and, worst of all, with six long and empty months to fill before the public tunes in to the general election after Labor Day.

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 lines—his only memorable lines, in fact—have 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 jobs—waiting tables, sweeping floors, unloading trucks—in 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 nastiness—as is likely, given their mutual respect—both 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.