In 1998, John Kerry took on the teachers' unions. In twin speeches in Washington and Massachusetts, he described school systems that are "imploding upon themselves," beset with "bloated bureaucracy" and "stagnant administration." He said we had to "end tenure as we know it" so incompetent teachers could be fired more easily.
"Those going into teaching have the lowest SAT and ACT scores of any profession in the United States," he observed. The teacher certification process, he concluded, is "an absurd anomaly" that creates a "convoluted monopolistic structure." He suggested that every school should be turned into a charter school so parents would have more choice.
In 1992, John Kerry took on civil rights groups. In speeches at Yale and in Washington, he said affirmative action had achieved many positive results. But he said it was time to acknowledge the costs. Once, he said, the civil rights movement was a "mighty battle between good and evil," but now the "civil rights arena is controlled by lawyers, (with) the winners and losers determined by rules most Americans neither understand nor are sympathetic with." Affirmative action, he argued, "has kept America thinking in racial terms." It has helped foster a "culture of dependency." Further, he said, "there exists a reality of reverse discrimination that actually engenders racism."
Thinking more broadly, he described crime-ridden neighborhoods "ruled not simply by poverty but by savagery." The crime rate, he continued, is "the most deadly poison there is to improved relations between black and white Americans." He asked how was it that the percentage of black children living with both parents through the age of 17 had gone to 6 percent from 50 percent.
Sounding like William Bennett, he declared, "We have to ask ourselves in 1992 whether this social disintegration is merely a symptom of deteriorating values that has swept all of this country to some degree. We must ask whether it is the result of a massive shift in the psychology of our nation that some argue grew out of the excesses of the 1960s, a shift from self-reliance to indulgence and dependence, from caring to self-indulgence, from public accountability to public abdication and chaos."
These are not the only times John Kerry has uttered what are, for a liberal Democrat, heterodox ideas. Kerry has argued that the Social Security system is unsustainable. He has called for unpopular reforms, including raising the retirement age and means-testing the benefits. He has argued that the United States should declare war on international crime cartels, and consider shooting down airplanes suspected of drug-running. He has argued that the gasoline tax should be raised by 50 cents a gallon.
If you look back over the span of John Kerry's career, you find that every few months or years he takes a hard look at some thorny public issue. Then he unleashes his inner Moynihan and comes out with an interesting and politically dangerous speech.
The problem is that he almost never follows up. When he makes these speeches he habitually asserts that he will mount a long public crusade. But then he takes his controversial ideas, jams them into a jar and buries them in the back yard.
If you watch him campaign today, you will have no clue that he has ever had interesting thoughts on education, civil rights, poverty and so on. On these and other issues, he campaigns as an orthodox Democrat, comfortably in tune with Ted Kennedy and the party's major interest groups. Far from continuing in the reformist vein when it comes to education, he has a core platform plank that is pure pander: "Stop Blaming and Start Supporting Public School Educators."
Were these speeches just cynical efforts to inoculate himself from the charge that he's a conventional Massachusetts liberal?
Both John McCain and John Kerry nearly died in Vietnam. Both say that these experiences have made every day that has followed feel like an gift from God, and that they are going to take this extra time to do what is right. The difference is that once McCain latches onto an issue like campaign finance reform, he sticks with it year after year.
John Kerry doesn't. He will momentarily embrace daring ideas, but if they threaten core constituencies, he often abandons them, returning meekly to the Democratic choir.
That is the difference between speechifying and leadership.
David Brooks is a New York Times columnist.
New York Times News Service