Former Democratic Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey is back, running a Senate campaign this year that has largely confused the good people of Nebraska but has nonetheless galvanized mainstream media reporters looking for an offbeat horserace-politics story with a nostalgic element to it.
At one time, lest we forget, Bob Kerrey was a Democratic political superstar. He was a war hero who lost a leg and won a Medal of Honor in Vietnam, who dated actress Debra Winger, who was elected governor at 39 and served two terms in the U.S. Senate between 1989 and 2001. On the night of his first Senate victory in 1988, he devoted his acceptance speech to singing, in full, “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” as a tribute to his old Navy Seal comrades. “We’ll waltz tonight and work tomorrow,” he grinned in conclusion.
The guy was good.
But now, after spending a decade in New York as the president of the progressive New School and returning to Nebraska in a last-minute scramble that saw him squatting in a donor’s guesthouse to fulfill residency requirements for his campaign, Kerrey trails his largely unknown Republican opponent Deb Fischer by double digits. He seems more focused on arranging a television debate with Grover Norquist than on exerting too much ground effort on his Midwestern “Last Hurrah” effort.
Kerrey even curiously told a reporter this summer, on the subject of his numerous out-of-state progressive donors, “It’s not likely that anybody who’s going to contribute to me says: ‘I’m going to contribute to him because I think he’s going to win.’”
As a moderate member of the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), an organization founded at the beginning of Reagan’s second term to broaden the appeal of the Democratic Party past its liberal base, Kerrey spent much of his career developing the centrist “Third Way” Democratic platform that shunned Keynesianism, supported welfare reform, and sought “market-based solutions” to economic problems. It was the school of thought that yielded the center-left presidency of Bill Clinton.
But for Bob Kerrey, as for the current incarnation of the Democratic Party, it is now very much a thing of the past.
As I reported in June for The Washington Free Beacon, Kerrey was recruited to run this year by national Democrats in part to help President Obama capture the one electoral vote in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District (Nebraska, like Maine, awards electoral votes by district). The Second District, which Obama won 51-49 in 2008, includes Kerrey’s home base of Omaha, and within it the University of Nebraska-Omaha, where urbane academic Kerrey is considered a political asset to Obama’s get-out-the-vote efforts.
Kerrey subsequently and unconvincingly denied any coordination with Obama’s campaign in Omaha, but a collective awareness has nonetheless been attained by Nebraska voters: Bob Kerrey is a national candidate running a state campaign. To many Nebraskans too young to remember what Kerrey means when he says, in his campaign commercials, “It’s good to be back,” the former senator seems more or less like a carpetbagger.
And he’s being rewarded for his carpetbagging in the manner most suitable to his personality type. Since launching his campaign, Kerrey has been the subject of numerous feature magazine profiles, the kind in which reporters slip into first-person writer mode as if thrilled to finally get a chance to use their MFAs.