There is a tendency in our post-2016 world to exaggerate the singular awfulness of Donald Trump’s election. For many of us who consider ourselves leftists or liberals, the last three years have been an emergency, with the only justifiable response being complete and daily resistance. Certainly, Trump’s policy of separating families at the border and then holding migrants in cages that don’t allow for even basic hygiene has been among the worst things our country has ever done, causing emotional and physical trauma, and in some cases even death, and leading to photo ops that literally make our leaders look like Nazis . Beyond this, there’s the more general dismay that many of us feel when we reflect on the fact that our country was even capable of electing a man like Trump, a reality-T.V. star businessman with a long history of racism, misogyny, and outright sexual assault, someone who illegally redirected campaign money to his lawyer to silence a porn star he’d once slept with and yet still somehow managed to win over the majority of the country’s evangelical voters. Given all that, it’s no surprise many of us view November 8, 2016 as a uniquely horrible moment, the day our country drove itself off a cliff.
But as bad as Trump is, viewing his election as a unique moment of national apocalypse obscures the reality of our recent history, specifically the fact that only 16 years before Trump, we elected a president who was arguably worse. After all, George W. Bush also won an extremely close election under suspicious circumstances and also passed a regressive tax bill that overwhelmingly favored the wealthy — but he also used a national tragedy to launch two wars in the greater Middle East, one of which is still ongoing and both of which together killed hundreds of thousands and destabilized an entire region, as well as to implement a national surveillance regime that violated the fourth amendment in the name of national security.
Of course, as leftists, it’s ultimately fruitless to debate who was worse — it’s like assessing the difference between two equally horrible diseases that present with differing symptoms. Instead, it’s more helpful to look back at the presidential election of 2004, when Bush comfortably secured himself and his awful administration a second term, and ask ourselves what Democrats did wrong. After all, Bush’s first term saw a form of resistance that in some ways exceeded that of the Trump years (at least so far): the country’s biggest anti-war protests since Vietnam. Clearly there was leftist and liberal energy throughout the country, a feeling that in voting to invade Iraq in search of ultimately mythical weapons of mass destruction, as well as an ultimately mythical (not to mention ideologically muddled) connection between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda, our politicians collectively failed us — yet the Democrats capitalized on none of that energy and lost by a bigger margin than they had in 2000. So what happened?
The flaw, of course, lies with the man the Democrats chose to be their standard bearer in 2004: John Kerry, Senator from Massachusetts. In the primaries, Kerry emerged as the safe, moderate choice, beating out the more liberal Howard Dean, despite the latter’s lead in most early polls (there are various explanations as to why Dean lost, but most settle on the aggressive negative campaigning between him and Gephardt just before the Iowa caucus, along with the infamous “Dean Scream” during his concession speech). Unlike Dean, Kerry was in favor of the war in Iraq, one of the central issues in the 2004 election — he voted for it in 2002 and then subsequently defended his decision in the first primary debate in May of 2003: “I think it was the right decision to disarm Saddam Hussein. And when the president made the decision, I supported him, and I support the fact that we did disarm him.”
In the general election, though, Kerry attempted to capitalize on the anti-war momentum by criticizing Bush’s handling of the war. Of course, this was hard to do given that Kerry had supported the war during the primary, and his lackluster attempts to change his position allowed the Bush campaign to attack him as a flip-flopper (most notable was Kerry’s now-famous attempt to explain his shifting position on a funding bill that provided an additional $87 billion for the war — “I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.”).
But flip-flips alone don’t explain Kerry’s loss — the larger truth was that by electing a moderate like Kerry in the primary, the Democrats had painted themselves into a corner for the general: Kerry tried to position himself as essentially a slightly more moderate version of Bush, in favor of the Iraq war, but not of Bush’s handling of it, in favor of neoliberal economics, but not of Bush’s neoliberal economics. Yet all this ended up doing was alienating liberals and leftists who wanted a more committed progressive and reaffirming to conservatives why they voted for Bush in the first place (after all, why would someone who was even moderately conservative switch to a less confident war hawk when they could vote again for the more confident one they’d supported four years ago?). In the end, those mythical moderates Kerry was counting on never turned up.
Of course, Kerry didn’t have to run as a moderate. As his political history shows, he was once quite the strident progressive. In the 1970s, after serving in Vietnam, he became an anti-war activist, joining the Vietnam Veterans Against the War and then most famously testifying before Congress in 1971 (when he was only 27) with a passionate and moving speech calling for an end to that disastrous war. Later, as a Senator in the 1980s, Kerry led the investigation into what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, revealing that the CIA had been illegally supplying weapons to the Nicaraguan right-wing paramilitary group known as the Contras and leading to the resignations and convictions of several members of Ronald Reagan’s administration (though most were eventually pardoned by George H.W. Bush). Imagine if Kerry, in 2004, had run on these accomplishments, on his anti-war activism and on his successful investigation of the Reagan administration’s illegal activities. Given the anti-war atmosphere in 2004, Kerry might have been able to galvanize a progressive coalition and send Bush back to his Texas ranch four years early (after all, in 2008, Obama did exactly that, running on a staunchly anti-war, progressive platform and winning a resounding victory, even in conservative strongholds like Indiana). But no — instead, in 2004, at the Democratic Convention, we got this.
Ultimately, the lessons of John Kerry’s failure for 2020 are clear: a moderate candidate will probably lose to Trump. In my last column, I discussed the issue of ideological consistency, and those lessons clearly apply to John Kerry as well. After all, it’s hard to get excited about a person with no convictions. Luckily, though, this time around, there are at least two options for progressives— so we don’t have to rely on a man like Howard Dean, who managed to bungle a sure-thing because of a cold.