Does John Kerry have to be exciting to be president?

Maybe not.

Which is a good thing for him, since he hasn't exactly set Democratic hearts aflutter.

In fairness, Kerry has been blotted out of the news quite a bit. First by Iraq, then by Reagan, and next week, most likely, by Clinton's multimedia book tour.

He's back to talking about the economy this week, prompting the Bush team to label him a pessimistic doom-and-gloomer since things are getting so much better on that front.

The Kerry camp makes the following points, early and often: Their man is in the best position for a challenger taking on an incumbent in decades, if not all of recorded history. Kerry is ahead in recent polls, despite Bush's $60-million barrage of largely negative ads. Public attention usually doesn't zero in on the challenger until he picks a running mate (expected in mid-July), holds a convention (in Boston at the end of July) and debates the president (sometime this fall).

But so far, at least, Kerry hasn't set pulses racing the way Howard Dean did among his fans, and he's not going to get a charisma boost from John McCain, either. (The CW is Edwards or Vilsack, with Clark as a dark horse, but the CW on veepstakes has consistently been wrong.)

Does that matter? Will a majority of voters (in key Electoral College states) be persuaded to dump President Bush for a man who doesn't get their adrenaline flowing? Or is the '04 election, as many believe, simply a referendum on 43?

The buzz got going again after a Washington Post front-page story | by Jim VandeHei declaring that "many Democratic voters, officials and even members of Kerry's staff express an ambivalence -- or angst -- about their presidential candidate that belies this strong public standing.

"These Democrats say the enthusiasm for defeating Bush runs much stronger and deeper than the passion for electing Kerry. The chief reason: The senator from Massachusetts, they say, has not crisply articulated what a Kerry presidency would stand for beyond undoing much of the Bush agenda."

Noam Scheiber disagrees in The New Republic |

"I think Kerry could easily become president without ever exciting many voters -- that would be the scenario in which Iraq continues to drag Bush down and Kerry proves himself to be a minimally acceptable alternative. But I agree that, if you're Kerry, you can't count on this happening, both because of the impending handover in Iraq and because of the improving economy. So it is somewhat of a concern that Kerry hasn't yet stumbled onto a compelling, affirmative pitch.

"Still, that logic only really applies to swing voters -- since they're the people who (almost by definition) would abandon Bush en masse if external events continue to go badly, and return to Bush if they improve. What I don't understand is why Kerry needs to also excite loyal Democrats, who are already extremely excited by the prospect of beating Bush, regardless of who ends up doing it. VandeHei suggests that these voters could either fail to turnout for Kerry or end up voting for Nader. But, unlike swing voters, there's no risk that these people will dislike Bush any less if the news out of Iraq or on the economy improves. For these people, Bush-hatred is just as reliable a motivator as Kerry-love, because their hatred is personal and ideological, not tied to outside events.

"Why does this matter? Because exciting both hard-core Democrats and swing voters is a nearly impossible task. If, on the other hand, Kerry can essentially take the votes of Bush-hating Democrats for granted, he can tailor his message almost entirely to swing voters, which would dramatically increase his chances of winning."

Or maybe the election will turn on this:

"Radio shock jock Howard Stern is predicting that he will help deliver the heavily sought-after swing voters to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry this November," reports The Hill's Jonathan Kaplan | "On air yesterday, Stern told The Hill: 'I'm both pro-Kerry and anti-Bush. More anti-Bush. I encourage people on the air and personally [to vote for him]. Here's the deal, dude. It turns out the show has a lot of influence among swing voters, voters who are not Republican or Democrat, but intelligent enough to vote for the good candidate.'

"Stern said he has never met Kerry but considers him 'a good guy.' Stern's listeners support Kerry over President Bush by a 10-point margin, according to a poll released last week."

Stern, of course, is engaged in an epic struggle with Bush's FCC.

Kerry is playing the Abu Ghraib card, says the Los Angeles Times |,1,7233210.story?coll=la-headlines-elect2004:

"Sen. John F. Kerry said Tuesday that newly disclosed Bush administration legal records on torture raise 'serious questions about how high' responsibility for the Iraq prisoner abuse scandal goes.

"Kerry said President Bush had incorrectly left the impression that 'just a few people' were involved in the U.S. military's mistreatment of detainees. The memos raise 'very, very serious questions about the messages that went out to leadership within the military and especially, ultimately, to the rank and file,' the presumed Democratic presidential nominee said."

Bush is playing the al Qaeda card, says the Boston Globe |

"President Bush yesterday defended Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion this week that Saddam Hussein had longstanding ties with Al Qaeda, even as critics charged that the White House had no new proof of a connection.

"At a news conference with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, Bush stood by his vice president, saying Hussein 'had ties to terrorist organizations,' though he did not specifically mention Al Qaeda.

" 'I look forward to the debates where people are saying, 'Oh gosh, the world would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power,' " Bush said.

"Bush has previously said there was 'no evidence' linking Hussein to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, but he and other members of his administration have continued to say they believe there were ties between Hussein and Al Qaeda."

The GOP wants Kerry to do what Bob Dole did in '96, says the New York Post |

"Top Republicans in John Kerry's home state of Massachusetts yesterday urged him to resign from the Senate to run for president -- because he's there so rarely, he has missed 88 percent of Senate votes.

" 'It's not fair, it's not right and the public is not being well-served,' complained Republican Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey.

"She issued the quit-now call on behalf of Republican Gov. Mitt Romney -- who would get to name Kerry's temporary replacement if he did quit his $158,100-a-year Senate job.

"Kerry shot back, 'I'm running for president because we have to put this country back into a place of responsible leadership. And I believe that I'm serving the citizens of Massachusetts and the country in the proposals that I've laid out.' "

Translation: Not gonna happen.

Wonder why you haven't heard much about Congress this year (except for the ethics complaint against Tom DeLay)? American Prospect's Mary Lynn Jones | explains why:

"With the House and Senate shut down on Friday for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan, lawmakers lost yet more time on the expiring congressional calendar. Congress is scheduled to be out from June 28 to July 5 for the July 4 recess (or, in official parlance, the 'Independence Day District Work Period'). From the Democratic convention, which takes place the last week in July, to the GOP convention, which ends in early September, most members of Congress (all of the House and one-third of the Senate) will be away from Washington and campaigning for reelection. The target date for adjournment is Oct. 1. . . .

"This shrinking legislative window wouldn't be as much of a problem if Congress hadn't been inactive for so much of this year. As House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer noted last month, House members have worked 'bankers' hours' in 2004; they may put in less face time than in 1998, when representatives reported for work in the nation's capital just 119 times. (That's one out of every three days for a year.) It would be merely ironic that lawmakers might spend more time this year trying to hold onto their jobs than actually doing those jobs, if so much important legislation -- the budget for fiscal year 2005 and the six-year transportation reauthorization bill, among other things -- were not sitting idle."

Here's a slap-your-forehead report about journalists by Robert Schlesinger in Salon |

"Last year, at least 13 foreign journalists were detained and deported at U.S. airports -- most in Los Angeles -- according to the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders. At least one more journalist was similarly turned away this year after being detained, interrogated and strip-searched.

"Why does the 'land of the free' need to specially monitor and control the flow of incoming journalists? 'Considering the fact that the United States has never licensed journalists, that in the United States anyone can be a journalist and that because most countries that require special visas for journalists tend to be totalitarian states, I think it's kind of stupid,' said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. . . .

"The most recent incident occurred in early May when Elena Lappin, a British freelance journalist traveling to Los Angeles to work on a story for the Guardian of London, was detained, questioned, strip-searched, handcuffed and taken to a downtown holding facility for the night. Twenty-six hours after arriving, she was put back on a plane to England. Instead of writing the article she planned, she gave the Guardian 2,400 words on her Kafkaesque encounter.

"Lappin's case is not isolated. In 2003, 12 journalists were detained at and deported from LAX. Last March, a Danish photographer had DNA samples taken before he was deported. That same month, a Swedish reporter was turned away at a Washington airport, where he was photographed and fingerprinted, and not allowed to call his embassy. Last May, six French reporters in two groups were detained at LAX; they were on assignment to cover a video-game trade fair. All were deported, the first three 'after being repeatedly questioned and body-searched six times,' according to Reporters Without Borders."

Finding terrorists who might be posing as journalists: Good thing. Harassing legitimate journalists: Bad thing.

There's a bit of a debate in the blogosphere over the NYT's newest columnist, David Brooks. Here's a representative excerpt from his column yesterday |

"This year the Democrats will nominate the perfect embodiment of an educated-class professional. John Kerry graduated from law school and plays classical guitar. President Bush, however, went to business school and drives a pickup around his ranch. So we can watch the conflict between these two rival elites play itself out in almost crystalline form.

"This educated-class rivalry has muddied the role of economics in shaping the political landscape. Republicans still have an advantage the higher you go up the income scale, but the correlation between income and voting patterns is weaker. There is, for example, this large class of affluent professionals who are solidly Democratic. DataQuick Information Systems recently put out a list of 100 ZIP code areas where the median home price was above $500,000. By my count, at least 90 of these places -- from the Upper West Side to Santa Monica -- elect liberal Democrats."

In Slate, David Plotz | summarizes the case against Brooks:

"I haven't talked to Brooks -- who is a friendly acquaintance -- since the pummeling started. But I expect he's agonized and baffled by it. Why so much sneering? Why now?

"Some of the reasons are obvious. As a conservative columnist at the Times -- a job he has held since September 2003 -- Brooks is the steer at the steakhouse. Liberals who admired him when he was the jolly voice of reason at the Weekly Standard resent him now that he occupies the throne of American journalism.

"And Brooks' Times column is a drag. Occasionally he reminds us of his talent (and his enormous decency) -- as when he gently mocks college admissions or pleads for gay marriage. But after 10 months, it's become clear that he doesn't have enough ideas -- or anger -- to sustain a twice-a-week column. (To be fair, few columnists do.) "

Andrew Sullivan | rises to his defense:

"The best explanation of the current fad of bashing David Brooks is professional jealousy. The man is well-liked, has the best column space in America, and has made a fortune writing popular books. Grrr. David Plotz's latest slam-job is particularly harsh, and undeserved.

"Brooks' pop-sociology isn't meant, as far as I can see, to be much more than a diverting take on current American culture. Is that such a . . . crime? His qualms about the war have been honest and forthright. He hasn't hidden from the consequences of the liberation. On several occasions, I've found Brooks' columns to be calibrated records of a man trying to think things through -- not mere wussiness.

"It's not necessarily a virtue to proclaim full speed ahead when a policy you have championed comes unstuck or frayed. And it's a little trite to link David's 'National Greatness' meme so specifically to the war in Iraq. David is a friend, so you can dismiss this short defense if you want."

Finally, according to Broadcasting & Cable |, a historical rewrite on The Scream:

"Howard Dean said the scream speech 'never happened,' and that its repetition more than900 times in the following week showed cable 'at its worst' and revealed cable news as a 'Murdochized' entertainment medium, not journalism.

"The former Vermont governor and presidential candidate calls it part of the 'Murdochization,' of cable, referring to the growing success of Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel. 'Not because Murdoch is a right winger, which he is,' says Dean, 'but because [Fox News Channel head] Roger Ailes is so incredibly good at what he does that the other stations [sic] are starting to copy what Fox does.'

"Dean told a crowd of broadcasters in Washington Monday morning that all the cable networks showed of the speech following his loss in Iowa was 'me at a microphone carrying on. No crowd noise or crowd shot,' that would have shown that the crowd was screaming and Dean was trying to make himself heard."