It should go down as the great irony of the 2004 election that Democrats chose John Kerry because of his alleged “electability.”
Lord knows they weren’t terribly enthusiastic about the man. The candidate who had really captured their hearts and imaginations was Howard Dean, who gave a voice (and a loud one, at that) to the rage that had built up among the Democratic faithful—rage over the 2000 debacle, rage over the president’s religious convictions, and, above all, rage over the invasion of Iraq. But the party leadership was smart enough to realize that sheer Bush hatred was insufficient to win a national election; that Dean’s ranting would not play well among moderates who might otherwise be turned off by the President’s policies. So they opted instead for someone who was solidly part of the establishment, a longtime senator who had the added advantage of apparently heroic service in Vietnam. When it came to most issues John Kerry and Howard Dean were perfectly compatible. The major difference between them seemed to be Iraq, and in the end this proved to be Kerry’s most daunting challenge—to devise a position on the Iraq War that could satisfy the antiwar base while still explaining why he had repeatedly called Saddam Hussein a threat, and had voted in favor of the resolution authorizing the President to use force to remove him.
It took a while, but Kerry eventually managed to come up with an argument that satisfied both conditions while still being logically consistent. The only problem was that it was complicated. So was his explanation of why he voted against the $87 billion appropriation for Iraq, and then faulted the administration for not adequately supporting the troops. So was his talk of the need for the country to pass a “global test,” which was somehow different from asking other countries for permission to go to war. So was his suggestion that there weren’t enough troops in Iraq, but that as president he would start bringing troops home within six months.
It matters little that Kerry had explanations for all of these positions, and that he seemed to address them satisfactorily in his three debates against Bush. What mattered ultimately was that he needed to explain them at all. And this gets down to the real difference between the two men in this race—George W. Bush was Andrew Jackson; John Kerry was Woodrow Wilson.
The President, like Jackson before him, didn’t need to explain his views. Jackson’s views struck most people as nothing more than common sense: hostile Indian tribes had to be pacified, the Bank of the United States was a haven for monopoly privilege that had to be destroyed, nullification in South Carolina smacked of treason. Today most Americans immediately comprehend the basics: the 9/11 attacks were a turning point in our history, our enemies are evil, Saddam Hussein harbored hostile intentions toward the United States. Americans did not need their president to tell them that; when he did, they cheered, not because they were learning something new, but because what they heard resonated with their unschooled, gut-level understanding.
On the other hand, John Kerry had to explain his positions to the American people. Liberals rejoiced after the first presidential debate, because Kerry had scored rhetorical points. He did a fair job of reconciling the apparent contradictions in his record, and seemed to have a more solid command of the facts than did the President. More than one political cartoon portrayed Kerry as a teacher, lecturing a sullen-faced, dunce-cap-wearing Dubya.
And herein lay the problem. Americans might admire debating ability, but they do not like to be treated as students. What they seek in a president is someone who shares their commonsense understanding of the problems facing the country. In other words, they want Andrew Jackson. But what they keep getting from the Democrats—allegedly the party of the people—is more Woodrow Wilson.
Wilson, who came from a distinguished academic background at Princeton, was as well known for his sense of intellectual superiority as he was for his brilliant oratory. He began his political career with a highly developed vision for changing the nature of the federal government, especially the presidency. In true progressive fashion, he had nothing but disdain for those who did not share his lofty ideals; they were either evildoers seeking to thwart God’s will, or simply too stupid to appreciate how enlightened he was. Republican leaders he placed in the former category; just about everyone else, at one time or another, he placed in the second.
True, Woodrow Wilson, unlike John Kerry, was elected president. But this was through a fluke, as the Republicans were divided between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt. His reelection in 1916 by a razor-thin margin was largely due to the persistence of the split among the GOP. He spent much of his time in office lecturing Congress, the American people, and foreign leaders about why they were wrong and he was right. By the end of Wilson’s second term both houses of Congress were in Republican hands, and he had alienated most of his own party as well.
Nevertheless, it is striking how many times in recent years Democrats have nominated presidential candidates whose attitudes resemble that of Wilson. There was Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s, loved by cosmopolites and intellectuals, but few others. There was George McGovern, Walter Mondale, and Michael Dukakis, all of whom thought the country needed a stern talking-to. In 2000 we had Al Gore, with his eye rolls and sighs, warning us that Earth was hanging in the balance. And, until this week, anyway, we had John Kerry.
It’s important to note that there have been occasions in the 20th century on which Democrats have nominated Jacksons. Despite his patrician upbringing, Franklin D. Roosevelt possessed a manner that allowed him to speak to ordinary Americans as if they were equals, not subordinates. Harry Truman and Lyndon Johnson were both consummate men of the people as well. And everything about Bill Clinton—including his moral failings—exuded a “just folks” mentality that played well at the polls.
Moreover, Republicans have nominated their share of Wilsons as well. One needs think only of the consummate stuffed-shirt, Herbert Hoover, or Thomas Dewey, who was compared to the little man on the wedding cake. Even conservative firebrand Barry Goldwater was prone to subject audiences to lectures on the evils of the New Deal and the need to use overwhelming force in the struggle against communism. These tended to grow tiresome compared to what seemed to be LBJ’s commonsense approach—poverty is a remediable social evil, and communism should be resisted in Vietnam in a responsible manner.
Jacksons try to tailor their message to the desires and fears of the average person. Wilsons tell the average people that their desires and fears are irrational, and try to convince them that they should want something else.
Jacksons lay out their agenda clearly, in simple black-and-white terms. Wilsons tell people how complicated the world is, suggesting that public affairs is therefore best left in the hands of an educated elite.
Jacksons act decisively in defending what they see as the national interest. Wilsons fret about the “international community.”
Finally, the obvious. Jacksons win presidential elections. Wilsons lose.
John Moser is assistant professor of history at Ashland University. He is author of the forthcoming book Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism.