The Courage to Lead

As president, John Kerry would inherit the most formidable grass-roots force in recent American history. Born in the rising populism of last year's frenetic primaries, this force has generated its own cobblestone leadership. What will Kerry do with these exuberant leaders dispersed across country and city? What will they do with him?

To hold this vibrant force, he must plan for the long run--if Kerry hopes to put through his legislative program, to win the midterm congressional elections of 2006, and to carry the Democratic Party to victory in 2008. But maintaining his personal following will not in itself be enough to sustain his strong personal leadership. In too many presidential campaigns, the candidate assembles an ad hoc team that fails to strengthen the institutional Democratic Party. Kerry must merge his campaign volunteers and professionals with the rank and file and ongoing organization of the Democratic Party.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to build a reorganized and revitalized democracy, but he failed in the face of entrenched southern power and the distractions of impending world war. To complete this giant task, Kerry would need to be more than a broker. He must rise above the usual give-and-take interest-group liberalism of the Democratic Party. The checks and balances of the American constitutional system, the regional fragmentation of the polity, and our relatively weak parties require an effective president to be a skilled broker and transactional leader. But that brand of brokerage, by itself, will not overcome the systemic bias against progressive action--it never has. Like other great leaders, President Kerry must first provide transforming ideas attuned to the great liberal proclamations, from the Declaration of Independence to the “Four Freedoms.”

Oratory will not be enough in itself, though. President Kerry must offer leadership of the highest order--creative, comprehensive, continuing. After years of delayed business under Democratic as well as Republican presidents, there must be outcomes, products, real change. These are what the great force Kerry has mobilized will want and can crucially help supply. As an organization Democrat, I have worked with grass-roots people for decades, but I have never seen such a mobilization of the liberal potential--independents as well as turned-off Democrats and an amazing number of disenchanted Republicans--as I have seen over the last 12 months. These are mainly policy-minded people dedicated to action, results, real change.

So if this resurgent force has much to offer Kerry, he would have even more to offer it. Its members will want a committed and constant leadership to complete the unfulfilled promise of the Carter and Clinton presidencies. The activists have waited a long time. They know that another spasm of reform--another Hundred Days--will not be enough. Nor will a strategy of centrism. President Kerry must offer strong and continuous leadership, year after year, to finally come to grips with the long list of delayed and inadequate programs for health, environment, minimum wages, jobs, and--above all--the relief of poverty at home and abroad. Catching up on unfinished business will take more than a year or two, or a presidential term. It might take a decade or two--the work of the Greatest Generation yet.

There is an even more crucial demand that this rising force would make of a President Kerry: not to forsake reform and programs for war making. Opponents of Iraq would hope that in this campaign, perhaps with George W. Bush by his side, John Kerry would turn to his television audience, look its members in the eye, and promise, “I will never--never--lie the American people into an unnecessary war.”

James MacGregor Burns, co-author of George Washington and author of the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Roosevelt: The Soldier of Freedom, is a professor of government, emeritus, at Williams College.