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.
There was a Kerrey profile in Bloomberg, in which the former senator sipped a latte at an Omaha Starbucks and mused aloud, “I’m not running because I need to be a senator. In fact, I barely want to be.” There was a write-up in The New York Times magazine (featuring the Kerrey quote “Am I going to be miserable if I win?”) in which Kerrey cast aspersions on his own Vietnam War record like a hard-bitten protagonist from a Tim O’Brien novel. There was a Washington Post feature that chided the “Kerrey subplot” of the 2012 election cycle even as it advanced the narrative, calling the Kerrey of yesteryear “dazzling” and a “heartland heartthrob.” According to the Post, “his past glories [in Nebraska] are as faded as those old campaign T-shirts.”
Even Kerrey’s own New Yorker wife, former “Saturday Night Live” writer Sarah Paley, wrote a supposedly humorous essay for Vogue complaining about her husband’s renewed political ambitions. At least one Omaha woman wrote in to a local paper to criticize the way Nebraskans were characterized in Paley’s piece, writing, “[Paley] apparently believes we all wear pantsuits, spout anti-abortion slogans and carry guns.”
Some people, it seems, just don’t appreciate good literature.
Whether an Obama surrogate, a dark-horse political comeback kid, or a tragic literary device unto himself, the Bob Kerrey of 2012 is at least relevant on some level, mostly by virtue of what he represents. His current candidacy, compared against his past political career, shows just how far the once-moderate Democratic Party has proudly, unabashedly moved left.
“Is this a middle-class tax increase?” a Nebraska Watchdog reporter asked Kerrey in July, referring to Kerrey’s plan to raise Social Security taxes.
“Yeah, in some respects it is,” Kerrey replied.
His statement was a far cry from the DLC’s longtime support for middle-class tax cuts, or, for that matter, from the middle-class tax cut in Arkansas that swept DLC veteran Bill Clinton to his party’s presidential nomination over Kerrey in 1992. (Clinton, for his part, said in May that he doesn’t think middle-class Americans “would object” to their taxes being raised in the near future).
After voting to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act in 1999 on the grounds that its safeguards against financial collapse actually damaged American business, Kerrey now supports the more extreme Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which has placed crippling regulatory burdens on small banks since its passage in December 2009.
Now a dedicated supporter of Obamacare, Kerrey in 1994 actually encouraged the Democratic Party to run ads attacking President Clinton’s proposal to force employers to pay for workers’ health care.
Out-of-control entitlement spending, said the Kerrey of 1994, is a “terrifying problem.”
The silver-haired New Yorker playing in this year’s Nebraska Old Timers Game doesn’t seem too terrified. Just as Clinton swallows his pride and offers a half-hearted endorsement of President Obama’s far-left economic ideals, so too does Kerrey tag along with the new party line.
Does he actually believe most of what he’s saying? Probably not. But for the sake of a president’s re-election and a good feature profile, he’s willing to drive around Nebraska for a few months saying it.
Kerrey’s informal campaign slogan seems to be “It’s good to be back.” But his former supporters are still wondering when he’s going to show up.
Patrick Howley is a staff writer for The Washington Free Beacon.