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Why the Kerry-in-2016 Talk Matters

Americans who marveled at the tone-deaf extravagance and the parody-worthy self-importance of Barack Obama’s 2008 acceptance of his party’s nomination could be forgiven for thinking the ridiculous scene had become a specialty of the Democratic National Conventions. After all, just four years earlier voters were treated to the unmitigated awkwardness of “I’m John Kerry, and I’m reporting for duty,” followed by a salute.

Kerry had come a long way from the vehement anti-military persona he had to leave behind to run for president–though he would return to it soon after by mocking the intelligence of America’s soldiers in Iraq. It’s doubtful there will ever be a better description of the scene at Kerry’s nomination than the one from our Andrew Ferguson: “There was also a telltale neoliberal excess to the convention that nominated him, in a hall festooned with so much military paraphernalia and overrun by so many saluting veterans that you might have thought you were watching a Latin American coup.”

But if you were one of the new voters who, in your tenacious youth and vacuous trendmongering, cast your first-ever vote for Barack Obama in 2008, there’s an outside chance that maybe, just maybe, you’ll get the opportunity to see what a joyless and uncomfortable spectacle it is when thousands of people are obliged to take John Kerry seriously at the same time. Here’s Mark Halperin, relating the latest bit of Beltway chatter:

“Let me just say quickly, if Hillary Clinton doesn’t run for president I bet you John Kerry does,” Mark Halperin declared on MSNBC.

The comment was at first met with silence, followed by awkward laughter from the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza — reactions that underscore how there’s been virtually no chatter about another White House bid for the Massachusetts senator and current secretary of state.

“That’s a first,” host Andrea Mitchell said in response.

Actually, it’s not a first. Slate’s Matt Yglesias had already floated the idea. But he wasn’t the first either. Progressive bloggers had been on the case before Kerry even took office at Foggy Bottom. I consider a Kerry candidacy for president to be quite unlikely, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about. In fact, it’s the chatter, not the chances, that tells us something about the current state of play on the left side of the aisle.

The talk of Kerry possibly running for president mostly rests on his active diplomacy in the Middle East. Democrats have been starved in recent years for diplomatic achievement. They believed (incorrectly) that George W. Bush’s administration eschewed multilateral diplomacy in favor of unilateral war. They rejoiced at President Obama, the man who would shake anybody’s hand if they were willing only to unclench their fist. But then Obama turned out to be a startlingly poor diplomatic practitioner whose foreign-policy successes consisted of low-key invasions and targeted assassination.

This image was only compounded when his first secretary of state accrued astounding frequent-flyer miles by traveling as far away from the most challenging diplomatic conflicts as her plane would take her.

And then here comes John Kerry, reporting for duty. Now suddenly there’s a deal with Iran, which isn’t a good deal but at least there may or may not be public support for it, depending on the weirdly fluctuating polls. And now we have a secretary of state smugly lecturing the Israeli leadership on Israeli national television. That probably isn’t too popular here at home overall, but among Democrats it’s positively delightful behavior.

And of course there’s the deal working with the Bashar al-Assad regime to legitimize his mass murder when conducted through means other than chemical weapons–a deal which Kerry fell face-first into when he tied his own shoelaces together, but which averted the possibility of a strike so the doves are happy. (And the liberal interventionists like Samantha Power are reduced to tweeting furiously from luxurious hotel suites in New York. Nowhere are the world’s worst actors safe from Samantha Power’s hashtags.)

Even if Kerry’s Syria deal was reminiscent less of Dean Acheson than Inspector Gadget, it’s part of what Democrats see as diplomacy taking its rightful place and producing (controversial) results. And it’s why Kerry is being treated to fulsome profiles–the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, the New York Times. But the irony of these profiles is that they tend to miss what is by far the most important aspect to Kerry’s diplomacy, especially with Iran, and which serves him well in comparison to Hillary Clinton. As the Boston Globe reported late last month, John Kerry opened secret backchannel communications with Iran in “early December 2011.”

That is, even when Clinton was America’s top diplomat, Kerry was the one Obama relied on to conduct his most consequential diplomacy. That’s probably because it would have been impossible for a sitting secretary of state to take part in such a plan without it becoming public. And it may also be because Clinton was too high-ranking an official to meet with the Iranians on a whim anyway. But whatever the reason, the point remains that dovish Democrats see this diplomacy as the culmination of a decade’s worth of efforts to steer the ship of state (and the Department of State) in their preferred direction–and Clinton’s name is not on it.

That’s not enough to make Kerry a realistic prospect for 2016 at this point, but it should worry Clinton that the conversation has turned from “will she run” to “maybe John Kerry should run instead.”



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