This country has never been particularly good about finding roles for its ex-presidents — and not at all for its defeated presidential candidates. Generally their fate is a quiet kind of exile. Has anyone seen Al Gore lately?
But Sen. John Kerry, after brooding about his loss for a few months, seems determined to be different, and he has a platform to do so. The Massachusetts Democrat is the first sitting senator in 32 years — the last was George McGovern — to return to the Senate after losing a presidential election.
Kerry is carving out a role for himself as the Bush administration’s critic-in-chief on Capitol Hill. He was one of 13 senators — one of only two on the Foreign Relations Committee — to vote against Condoleezza Rice’s nomination as secretary of state.
You can question the wisdom of the politics of voting against the popular Rice, but there was no question of where he was coming from on the nomination. His action seemed an indirect rebuttal to critics who found him indecisive and wishy-washy on the campaign trail.
In recent weeks he introduced a major piece of legislation, called “Kids First,” designed to extend health-care coverage to 11 million children through expansion of Medicaid. The $2 billion projected cost of the program would be paid for by — no surprise here — repealing parts of the Bush tax cuts.
Again, Kerry's bill seems partially intended to answer campaign charges that he had been a passive legislator with little to show for his 20 years in the Senate.
Whatever one thinks of Kerry, American democracy is an adversarial system and demands a certain hot-blooded level of partisanship. The disorganized and disoriented Democrats have offered little in the way of alternatives to Bush’s agenda. If losing the campaign has made Kerry an effective and forceful leader of the opposition, good for him.
Kerry also showed that he will try not to make the mistake of getting painted on the wrong side of the “values” issue again with such polished rejoinders as: “Insuring kids is really a test of who just talks about family values and who actually values families.”
Inevitably, he is asked about 2008, and says it’s “way too early.” Want to bet?