Nominating Our Worst Nightmare

When researching George Allen yesterday, I saw him regularly described as the Democrats' worst nightmare. Not so. Our worst nightmares aren't nominated in Republican primaries, but in our own. To understand that, a more critical look at John Kerry is in order. So for those who haven't absorbed Thomas Frank's latest 21-gun salute to populism, there's no time like the present. His election retrospective in the latest New York Review of Books is certainly one of the best I've seen, and even if he hits the same notes he always does, he's done a much better job constructing the rhythm to match the election's ebbs and flows.

Frank has been marginalized as a single-idea commentator, a pundit whose work can be safely assumed sans reading. Not so. In fact, Frank's weakest area is, unfortunately, what everyone seems to focus on in his books and columns. His solution, that a renewed emphasis on class warfare -- a term I don't use pejoratively -- and protectionist populism will blunt the GOP's culture attacks, isn't the greatest idea contemporary political commentators have produced. Protectionism, for instance, can have nasty consequences (so, for that matter, can free trade), like ethnic scapegoating and poor economic policy, and you don't want to whip people into such a frenzy over trade that you lose the ability to legislate honestly and in the country's best interest. Class warfare is powerful and we need more of it, but it's no cure-all either.

But if Frank reaches for substantive solutions that don't always ring true, what comes before retains its immense diagnostic clarity. What Frank gets, and what Democrats too often don't, is that we fail by nominating candidates who're manifestations of our worst stereotypes. Kerry, good man though he is, remains an alien aristocrat in bearing and speech. It's not like Gore, who you could argue was simply painted with a particular brush during a particular election. This is, and always has been, Kerry.