washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Marjorie Williams

Win One for the Flipper

By Marjorie Williams
Sunday, March 7, 2004; Page B07

I've been trying, really I have. As a charter member of the ABB Society -- Anybody But Bush -- I've tried not to fret over the alarmingly tautological nature of John Kerry's victory. He was inevitable because voters picked him to win because he had won over earlier voters and therefore must be a winner. I've tried not to worry over the fact that he has all the social bonhomie of one of Edith Wharton's ambivalent society stiffs. We know that some crucial part of the presidential electorate votes on impressions of likability, but I've assured myself that between now and November Kerry will warm up.

And I've labored to turn my eyes from his career-long opportunism, the knowledge that Bay State political junkies trade their favorite Kerry flip-flops like baseball cards. Bush is already having fun with Kerry's zigzags of the past three years alone: Kerry voted for so many of Bush's major initiatives that in order to disown them now he can only argue that they were wrongly or dishonestly "implemented." This amounts to a confession that his opponent made a chump of him for the past three years. In fact, one might argue that Kerry is a poster boy for all the ways in which congressional Democrats have allowed themselves to be rolled by the Bush administration. But this is something I am trying hard not to notice about him.

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It's been especially difficult, but I work to achieve a kind of amnesia about Kerry's incoherent and changing explanation of his position -- no, his positions -- concerning the crucial issue of Bush's war in Iraq.

Okay, so he's kicked away both a grand political opportunity and -- much more importantly -- any sense of confidence that he would lead the war on terrorism more wisely than Bush. But surely it's a coincidence that all of his war-related votes, going back to his vote against Bush pere's 1991 resolution for the Persian Gulf War, found him on the side of short-term political expedience?

I finally lost my grip, though, when I opened my newspaper a few days ago to read of Kerry's latest lunge in the direction of some politically feasible position on gay marriage. In general, Kerry, like most Democrats, has taken shelter in the mantra that (a) it's a matter that should be decided in the states, and (b) civil unions are the acceptable way to go about conferring equal rights on gays; marriage itself is off the table. "I believe marriage is between a man and a woman," Democrats say, as if that took care of the matter. Outside of a religious context, of course, that statement is a prejudice rather than a policy -- a prejudice that, in many cases, the speaker does not actually hold.

But Kerry was managing this footwork just fine until Feb. 4, when the Supreme Court of Massachusetts interpreted the state's constitution to require the option of gay marriage. Kerry responded by endorsing an amendment to the state's constitution that would forbid gay marriage but allow civil union. He was the only member of his congressional delegation to take this stance, for good reason: Endorsing a constitutional amendment at the state level seriously undermines the arguments for fighting an amendment at the federal level. One of the best arguments against forbidding gay marriage in the Constitution is that the spirit of the document is to confer rights, not confiscate them.

This more-than-theoretical move against gay marriage was at odds with Kerry's brave 1996 vote against the reprehensible Defense of Marriage Act, which is easily one of the most principled votes he ever cast. He was one of only 14 senators to oppose it, while Bill Clinton, ever triangulating, cynically signed it into law.

But never mind. On Feb. 27, Kerry quietly told a group of unhappy gay donors that he would work to confer full federal benefits, including Social Security survivor benefits, the right to file taxes jointly, and more than a thousand others, on gay couples joined by any state-sanctioned union -- which would of course include marriage. So while wishing to forbid gay marriage in his own state, he is promising to reward it in others.

To watch Kerry floundering in the impossible contradictions of this issue is to see starkly how little he is guided by core principle -- or even by a consistently wise sense of where his political interests lie. To respond to every unpleasant political stimulus that presents itself is to throw away the chance to make even an expedient long-term commitment to something.

There's no doubt that John Kerry has his good points. His heroism in Vietnam, though not the perfect magic amulet of Democratic fantasies, does give him one kind of alpha-dog dominance over President Bush. It sure feels refreshing, as a Democrat, to have a candidate whose claim to toughness doesn't seem slightly ridiculous.

But in eight out of nine Super Tuesday primaries -- even in his home state! -- Kerry voters who were acting on the belief that he offered the best chance of beating Bush outnumbered those who thought Kerry agreed with them on major issues. The one exception was Ohio, where the Issues camp outstripped the Beat Bush camp by four points.

Eight months is a long time for Bush to pile up a home-field advantage while Kerry's campaign decides how to fill in, complete and polish the invention that won the primaries. It's going to be hard to sustain, for so many months, the party's fond illusion that there is such a beast as "electability."

But I'm trying, I really am. Cover your eyes, and clap if you believe in Tinkerbell.

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