John on the Spot

They say that John Kerry has the entire Democratic establishment, and even some outliers, in his corner. "I personally have never seen the Democratic Party more united," says one party strategist. "As in ever." Swearing that the intraparty squabbling of the last decade is over, allegiance to the candidate has come from all corners.

But "party unity" doesn't equal "defined candidate." And at the beginning of April, as this issue went to press, Kerry's message had yet to be firmly articulated. "It's up to the campaign to make choices -- clear choices -- so that the campaign is not a themeless pudding," says another top Democratic strategist. "No one wants to rerun the Gore campaign."

Kerry has his work cut out for him. His party is most deeply divided on the very questions that will dominate the 2004 elections: foreign and economic policy. He'll need to try to satisfy both wings enough to keep them engaged in his campaign while at the same time coming up with a unified message that reaches crucial independents. So far he's kept a tenuous hold on the party, but his message is still patchy, generally promoting a multilateralist foreign policy and a hard line on deficit reduction. In both arenas, he's got to find a coherent ideology, and present it with force, if his bid to trump George W. Bush is to succeed.

To date, Kerry's team has been pushing a foreign-policy cocktail that is four parts anti-Bush policy, one part Clinton-era nation building, and a dash of honorifics to pre-Vietnam Democrats. But with the Iraqi occupation deteriorating, Kerry needs to offer detailed alternatives.

Kerry's foreign-policy shop is led by Rand Beers, a former National Security Council counterterrorism adviser who served four presidents before quietly quitting the Bush White House last spring. Beers' line on counterterrorism focuses on re-engaging America's allies, both on intelligence and in military action; reaching out to the Arab world; and routing out not just terrorists but the very roots of terrorism. Like his friend Richard Clarke, Beers has expressed the belief that Iraq was a dangerous diversion from the war on terrorism. These views have found their way into Kerry's stump speeches, with his multiple pledges to reach out to allies in Europe, the Middle East, and the United Nations to bolster U.S. credibility abroad.

A team of proxies are pushing this vision on Kerry's behalf. "I think what [Kerry] stands for," former State Department spokesman James Rubin told FOX's John Gibson in mid-March, are "the kind of policies that go back to Franklin Roosevelt, to the time after World War II ... when we worked with the rest of the world to deal with problems, to deal with them successfully, but we didn't find ourselves alone, virtually alone in Iraq the way we do today." Addressing Kerry's platform, Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's national-security adviser, has been advancing a similar line in his TV appearances, and former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has pushed the lost art of nation building.

Having heavyweights like Berger and Holbrooke onboard helps provide needed gravitas, but Kerry has just begun hammering out the details on Iraq and reconciling them with his vote against the $87 billion for reconstruction. In an April 13 Washington Post op-ed, he provided a glimpse of what his Iraqi policy would look like: more U.S. troops, broader roles for NATO and the United Nations, and a U.S. pledge to accept any UN-brokered plan for self-governance that Iraqis agree to. At bottom, the article was an advertisement for long-term nation building -- a signal that a Kerry presidency would not pull up stakes in Iraq and, in fact, might well stay longer than a second Bush administration would. It's an activist, internationalist approach that Kerry has also indicated he'd use with North Korea, which he has said he would re-engage with in direct talks, and in the Middle East, where his team has signaled a return to Clinton-era levels of engagement.

And yet, on most of these issues, details are still in fairly short supply. "Kerry has suggested that if we simply had a less unilateral and less arrogant president, that a lot of the anger would dissipate," says Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "But I think the problem is deeper than that." O'Hanlon believes that to win, Kerry will have to reassure independent voters that he will stand his ground. "I don't think Kerry is going to win their vote unless he's capable of decisiveness, or a broader vision ... on the huge chasm between Islam and the United States that Bush hasn't addressed," O'Hanlon says. "On that point, I think Kerry still has some work to do."

It is a concern substantiated by recent polling that shows the president still besting Kerry on national security and foreign policy, despite weeks of September 11 commission testimony, Richard Clarke's best-selling criticism, and escalating violence in Iraq. According to a March Pew Research Center poll, 53 percent of Americans believed Bush would do a better job of "defending the country from future terrorist attacks" compared with 29 percent for Kerry; 49 percent believed Bush would make "wise[er] decisions about what to do about Iraq" versus 37 percent for Kerry; and 44 percent to 38 percent believed Bush would make "wise[er] decisions about foreign policy." A FOX News poll from the second week of April showed little change in those numbers.

Still, for all the anxiety around national security, voters consistently list economy and job security as their first priorities. Here, too, with the deficit spiraling and the economy shaky, Kerry has an opening to carve out a new agenda for the Democrats.

He has a historic choice between two lines of Democratic economic thinking: liberal deficit spending and public investment or moderate, deficit-reduction-first Rubinomics. Kerry is running as a deficit hawk because, with little effort, it highlights Bush's flawed economic agenda and the massive reversal from Clinton-era surpluses to escalating deficits. And unless the party's liberal wing can make him do otherwise, he's likely to govern that way. "The fiscal inheritance for Kerry will be terrible," says Alan Blinder, a Princeton University economist and one of Kerry's behind-the-scenes economics advisers. Blinder says the situation is worse than the one Clinton inherited in 1993 "for two reasons. ... One, the deficit is larger, substantially larger, but second, and more importantly, nothing has been done to deflect [its] upward trajectory."

To address this, in his speech at Georgetown University on April 7, Kerry announced a return to what economists call a "pay-as-you-go" (or "paygo") approach -- instituting spending caps on the budget by hitching spending to inflation; requiring a plan to pay for each proposed program; and dangling the prospect of spending cuts in everything but homeland security, education, health care, Social Security, and Medicare. To cover the cost of expanding health-care coverage, Kerry has proposed rolling back the Bush tax cut on individuals with annual incomes greater than $200,000 and preserving the middle- and lower-class tax cuts.

These fiscally conservative messages are being shaped by a group scooped up primarily from the Clinton White House. They include Gene Sperling, Clinton's national economic adviser, and Roger Altman, who was at the Treasury Department under Clinton. Clinton Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin's fingerprints are on every proposal. Then there is a quieter economic team of informal advisers that includes Blinder, who served on Clinton's Council of Economic Advisers, and Robert Shapiro, former undersecretary of commerce for economic affairs under Clinton and a onetime Progressive Policy Institute economist.

Under their tutelage, it is Kerry who is talking about making government smaller and sleeker, proposing in his Georgetown speech to freeze the federal travel budget, reduce oil-royalty exemptions for drilling on federal lands, cut 100,000 contractors employed by the federal government, and trim administrative costs by 5 percent. "And when we're done," he said, "the federal government will be smaller but smarter, more effective and less expensive." Kerry has promised to slice the deficit in half within four years -- a goal he intends to accomplish in part by ending "corporate welfare," federal subsidies, and tax breaks for corporations.

The big problem -- raised by Republicans and journalists alike -- is that, so far, the numbers floated in Kerry's speeches aren't in sync. According to some economists, rolling back the tax cut for the wealthiest would only barely pay for expanding health care to the uninsured. The big untouchables -- like Social Security and Medicare -- will continue to cost big money. In the Georgetown speech, Kerry cautioned that some of the social programs he advanced during the primaries would have to be scaled back to tame the deficit -- including pledges to fund universal pre-kindergarten programs and national-service initiatives.

But Kerry's in a tight spot: Voters aren't going to warm to a platform of only cutting services. As Sperling said at an American Enterprise Institute conference in October (before he was officially working for Kerry), "Democrats have to put everything in the terms of a pro-growth, pro-wealth-creation proposal. ... It has to be the alternative growth agenda."

Along those lines, Kerry has proposed an end to the tax incentives for companies that take their jobs overseas and a review of all trade agreements -- including the North American Free Trade Agreement. He's also announced tax incentives for companies that manufacture in the United States. But some think he needs to do more, and they invoke Clinton's wedge-issue wins from 1992. "When Bill Clinton endorsed the Family and Medical Leave Act -- after George Bush Senior vetoed it twice -- he showed he 'got' voters concerns," says Karen Kornbluh, director of the New America Foundation's Work and Family Program and a former deputy chief of staff to Robert Rubin. "Politicians break through when they convince voters they can improve their family's balance sheet." (Kornbluh has been mentioned by Kerry campaign staff as someone they will turn to on work and family issues.)

Kerry's breakthrough moment has not yet arrived. "How he defines himself will give people something to hold on to," says a prominent Democrat who is informally advising the campaign. It will also be an ideological balancing act on which his show depends.