The Harvard Primary

CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS -- Chris Matthews alternatively calls her "Michelle Pfeiffer" and "a real ball buster." She is Dawn Birch, dressed in a black suit with white gloves, and draped in high-tech communications equipment, stimulating 800 people at Harvard to show enthusiasm for Matthews and his weekly guests, all Democratic presidential candidates. The white gloves assure that the audience will know when to stand, shriek, and applaud.

Welcome to the Harvard Primary. And these are the people who wonder how Californians elected an action hero.

Perhaps commensurate with their sense of entitlement, Harvard students expect this close-up and personal treatment by candidates who may become president of the United States. It's another question whether Matthews' weekly "Hardball" series at Harvard is preparation for public service or definitive evidence that politics fundamentally is live entertainment.

Only a few elite contributors and the virtually white voters of Iowa and New Hampshire will get this much attention. Carefully observed, these weekly engagements do provide a valuable sense of the candidates under fire as well as a window into the show that politics has become.

To warm up the crowd, for example, Matthews yells out questions like "How many of you think Cheney's an evil son of a bitch?" (Laughter and applause.) "How many of you would support Bill Clinton?" (Thunderous huzzahs.). "Oh yeah? Well, how old is the next Monica Lewinsky?" (Stunned silence, hissing.)

Though they have the chance, the audience has learned not to ask Matthews questions, like "Did Karl Rove call you recently about White House leaks and have you reported what he said?" (Impolite.)

As to the candidates themselves, if they don't have ready answers to questions like "What's your favorite movie?" they will plunge into a void of tongue-tied unentertaining contenders. Two weeks ago, Sen. John Edwards stumbled through 60 seconds of embarrassed confusion before he remembered "the one about the guy who gets the death penalty" ("Shawshank Redemption"). Presumably more prepared, this week's candidate, Sen. John Kerry, quickly answered "Animal House" to approving cheers.

"Animal House?" Such is the stuff of which campaigns are made, even at Harvard. But then, too, 123 Harvard students have been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning this year, double the 2001 figure, so Animal House may resonate.

Nevertheless, this is important stuff. The Democratic candidates are contributing to the public's growing doubt about George Bush (who, by the way, is invited here too). How the Democrats handle their own differences will affect party unity and morale in 2004. How they respond to the agenda of the peace and global justice movements, versus the corporate pleas of the Democratic Leadership Council, will affect history as well. Can the vast constituency of Democrats, independents and Greens form an unorganized united front to dump Bush, or will internal differences on the Center-Left permit Karl Rove to prevail for another four years? This is a very big deal.

"Hardball" is not an infomercial. Beneath the rock-star treatment of the candidates, there is substance, derived from Matthews' many years on Capitol Hill. He hammers at both Edwards and Kerry for their shifting views on Iraq (both deny they've changed) and tries to draw them into personal attacks on President Bush or other candidates (which they gamely avoid).

For 10 minutes that feels like 10 hours, Sen. Edwards stubbornly "stands behind" his vote last year authorizing war in Iraq. As the oxygen vanishes from the room, he still claims that Saddam was a "direct threat" to the United States. It's a legitimate point for a hawk, but more treacherous for a reborn dove. Of course, Edwards could announce with righteous anger that "we were misled," but that might reinforce the charge that he is inexperienced in foreign policy. Better to be stubbornly wrong.

If authorizing the war was right, if toppling Saddam was right, what's wrong with Bush's policy today? The unspoken answer in the room is that voters in Democratic primaries have turned against the Iraq quagmire, big-time.

Edwards only says that "Bush has no plan," which of course was true last year when Edwards sat on the Senate intelligence committee. For whatever reason, Edwards fails to announce on "Hardball" that he will vote against Bush's $87 billion request, a position he saves for the following day. Might Matthews have hammered him for flip-flopping on the aid vote?

It's a grave risk for Democrats seeking to explain their turnarounds on the war. But better late than never. According to pundits cited by Matthews, voters are shopping for a candidate who was for the war, apparently meaning they are strong on national security, but against the postwar consequences, which means they can recognize a Republican white elephant.

Edwards is more agreeable talking about his white working-class roots, his populist domestic platform, the ravages of the Bush tax cuts, and his clear call for public financing of elections.

It becomes rough going again when Matthews demands, several times, to know why Edwards is running. The hammering is like a police interrogation without Miranda rights. So extreme is the culture of winning that it is fatal for a candidate to admit the obvious, that the polls show he is terminal. A huge disconnect between politics and ordinary life follows. Though anything is possible, including alien space abductions, Edwards is well below 5 percent in reliable polls.

So the question lingers, leaving people to speculate behind the candidate's back. Is he a fledgling John F. Kennedy, who sought the vice-presidential nomination in 1956 and became a national figure? Edwards rules it out. Why is he giving up a Democratic senate seat? One possibility is that Edwards will introduce himself favorably to the voters with his folksy populist message and, if not drafted for the ticket, might fit very well as the Democrats' answer to John Ashcroft as attorney general. It's a kind of branding strategy as opposed to a winning campaign. And who knows what might happen if you just show up?

For week two (the second inning, Matthews on the mound), a casually dressed John Kerry dug into the swivel chair, with his Harvard daughter along for support (Edwards brought his wife and daughter).

As a Massachusetts homeboy with four terms in the Senate, Kerry seemed far more at ease than the newcomer Edwards. Yet he too wallowed in the rhetorical quagmire which awaits Iraq hawks trying now to backpedal. Kerry's answers are received as more opportunistic than nuanced by an audience that is tired of being confused by politicians. As a nasty Globe columnist, Eileen McNamara, wrote, "Kerry cannot summon a direct answer to a direct question."

Such is the fate of centrist politicians and lawyers with exit strategies tucked into their arguments these days. Having voted for the war, Kerry now lists the ways Bush has mishandled it: Bush was too unilateral, Bush had no plan, Bush didn't get UN backing, Bush didn't do this or that. This leaves the question of whether Kerry would have conducted the war differently, and how. Or would he have threatened force, then gone along with the UN's resistance? Or if he's an experienced Senator, how was he deceived by intelligence reports of weapons of mass destruction? Once into the vortex, it only gets worse.

It appears that the candidate's withdrawal from previous pro-war stances may be harder than the withdrawal of American troops from the battlefield. The Democratic candidates do a service to the anti-war movement by spreading questions among the voting public, but the struggle to define a credible alternative has been left largely to a doctor from a white state with no foreign policy background, Gov. Howard Dean (he's up at bat December 1).

Yet I found myself feeling, somewhat unexpectedly, that Kerry managed to project the gravitas of a president amidst this carnival, and that he may yet succeed. He would not be the first Massachusetts senator to run as a hawk and turn toward peace. John F. Kennedy blamed Richard Nixon in 1960 for a fabricated "missile gap" and three years later was issuing visionary calls for the end of the Cold War arms race.

What came through in the interview was a reassuring reminder of Kerry's experience as opposed to Edwards, Dean and others. If he can balance his waffling by asserting himself as the toughest standard-bearer against Bush, that may see him through. Asked if a "Massachusetts liberal" could win a national election, Kerry was quick to respond that he "would tell the president I know something for real about aircraft carriers" and would relish taking on a president who ducked during Vietnam.

Kerry's actual military record would contrast powerfully with Bush's 60s˙ cheerleading at Yale and with the still-lingering image of another Massachusetts politician, Michael Dukakis, perched lost upon a US tank in 1988. Having talked with Dukakis about that experience, Kerry said the mistake was that the liberal governor "didn't believe he had to fight back."

Kerry resonated most strongly when he accused Bush of missing "the opportunity of a generation" calling up the unfulfilled aspirations of the 60s. The crowd was charged by his calls for dramatic energy conservation and a reversal of budget priorities that slash Headstart and increase incarceration.

In this imperfect world, if the Dean campaign slows, if national defense remains a top issue, Kerry could wind up the nominee by a close margin. Then what? At a recent Washington fund-raiser, uber-candidate Bill Clinton observed that Democrats "fall in love" with their candidates during primaries, but urged them to "fall in line" behind the eventual nominee. Is that possible? How would a centrist Kerry galvanize a discouraged Howard Dean grassroots base? He will have to avoid attacking Dean from the right, acknowledge that he's learned something from the Dean phenomenon, then stir up fear and loathing of Bush.

To succeed, Kerry will have to find graceful ways to retreat not only from his pro-war vote but also from his long-standing commitment to "free trade."

Plainly the national Democratic Party and most of its candidates have lost their moorings, tilting toward the fat cats and soccer moms during the 90s only to find that Democratic voters aren't signing up with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council in the midst of military quagmire, tax cuts for the rich, historic deficits, rising poverty and the looting of the environment. Candidates like Edwards and Kerry need to tack with the wind or risk their sails going dead.


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