Feingold, Kerry & the 'Strategists'

By Robert Parry
March 15, 2006

Years before Sen. John Kerry fell under the spell of national Democratic “strategists,” he believed that a Democrat’s best hope for winning the White House was to run as an insurgent. To overcome built-in Republican advantages, Kerry felt a Democrat had to show principle and challenge the status quo.

But Kerry had that thinking beat out of him. In the late 1980s, he got pummeled by the mainstream news media and the political establishment for exposing cocaine trafficking by Nicaraguan contra rebels and for embarrassing their Reagan-Bush patrons. Respectable Washington didn’t want to believe the ugly reality.

Mocked by the big newspapers and branded a “randy conspiracy buff” by Newsweek, Kerry was persuaded by party insiders that his political future required him to trim his sails and dump his rebelliousness overboard. [See’s “Kerry’s Contra-Cocaine Chapter.”]

So, by the time he ran for president in 2004, Kerry was silent about his heroic investigations of the 1980s. He presented himself instead as a careful politician who spoke in a fog of nuance. Whenever he seemed poised to crush the bumbling George W. Bush, Kerry retreated into poll-tested platitudes.

As it turned out – as the younger Kerry would have understood – the greatest risk was to play it safe.

Now, to hear Kerry tell it, he has relearned the lesson that he once knew. He has vowed to fight with clarity and passion. But the tragedy of John Kerry – like “The Natural” in Bernard Malamud’s novel (not the movie) – may be that opportunity missed is often a chance lost for good.

In life, you often don’t get a second act. Except, of course, for Democratic “strategists,” who always seem to get a second act, even a third and a fourth, no matter how often they lose. Strategist Bob Shrum, for instance, has been a chronic loser in presidential races but is still sought out by Democratic hopefuls, including John Kerry in 2004.

And, when they’re not applying their cold hands to Democratic campaigns, the strategists can put a chill on any Democrat’s principled behavior by whispering in the ears of journalists that a seemingly noble act is reckless, calculated or somehow both.

Feingold Undermined

That was the case when Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wisconsin, proposed censuring Bush for authorizing warrantless wiretaps of Americans outside the legal channels of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act – and thus in violation of the Fourth Amendment’s ban on searches and seizures without the government getting a court’s approval.

While Feingold’s proposal could be viewed as a moderate step – expressing congressional disapproval short of impeachment – Washington Post reporter Charles Babington searched out unnamed “Democratic strategists” to make Feingold’s plan look both craven and crazy.

“Some party strategists,” Babington wrote, “worried that voters will see the move as overreaching partisanship.” Then, going in the opposite direction, Babington quoted the strategists worrying that the real problem with Feingold’s initiative was that challenging Bush on abrogating the Fourth Amendment wasn’t the smartest partisan move.

“Several Democratic strategists said (illegal) surveillance issues are not Bush’s most vulnerable spot, and they fear the party may appear extremist,” Babington wrote.

The Post reporter then quoted a strategist, identified only as a former aide to President Bill Clinton, as saying, “It is more likely that a big censure fight would have the effect of rallying folks to his (Bush’s) side.”

The Clinton aide added, “While some in the Democratic base want retribution for what happened to Clinton, I think there is a larger reluctance to try to remove people from office.”

But the Clinton aide’s assessment of motivation – that Democrats “want retribution” for the impeachment drive against Clinton – seems to have little evidentiary support. The grassroots pressure for holding Bush accountable has sprung from outrage over his “preemptive” war in Iraq, his lies and his violations of the Constitution.

Without the unattributed quote from the Clinton aide, Babington would have been hard-pressed to find citations among grassroots bloggers or other Democratic activists who want Bush impeached or otherwise punished as retribution for Clinton’s humiliation in 1998-99.

But the Clinton aide’s comment fits with the mainstream media’s critique of Feingold’s censure resolution as almost all things negative: partisan, “extremist,” counter-productive and vengeful.

The “Democratic strategists” thus set up the story’s kicker line. House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, called Feingold’s resolution “political grandstanding of the very worst kind.” [Washington Post, March 14, 2006]

The construction of Babington’s story also underscores the difficulty that any Democrat faces in trying to take principled stands against Republicans.

The Washington Post and other mainstream news outlets will invariably apply a negative spin suggesting some ulterior motive; the Republicans will counter-attack aggressively; and “Democratic strategists” will deliver a sucker punch from behind.

Similar muggings hit John Kerry when he tried to investigate the contra-cocaine scandal in the 1980s; battered Al Gore in 2002 when he questioned Bush’s rush to war in Iraq; demeaned Rep. John Conyers’s hearing on the Downing Street Memo in 2005; and now confront Feingold for daring to seek even a mild form of accountability against Bush.

The lesson for Democrats who want to stand and fight is that they must respond to this three-sided problem with a three-pronged solution: challenging Republican wrongdoing without fear or equivocation; building media outlets that will circumvent the smug mainstream press; and standing behind the rare Democratic politician who shows some courage.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at It's also available at, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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