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Joan Vennochi

Kerry finds his voice, and it’s in ‘D’

By Joan Vennochi
Globe Columnist / March 17, 2011

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SENATOR JOHN Kerry has been his party’s presidential nominee and its whipping boy after losing.

Now, after clawing his way back to respect, the senior senator from Massachusetts is starting to do what he should do at this moment in political time. He’s finally celebrating the Ted Kennedy definition of Democrat.

He doesn’t have the liberal lion’s unique gusto. But he’s speaking up, Kerry-style, for those old liberal values — community action and fuel assistance programs — in the budget debate.

He is also framing foreign policy decisions as moral issues for the United States and the international community. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry was out ahead of the White House, calling for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down. Writing for the Washington Post, he argued for a no-fly zone over Libya as a way to stop Moammar Khadafy from a bloody massacre of the Libyans who are bravely rebelling against him.

So far, Kerry’s argument for a no-fly zone has not prevailed. As Kerry predicted, Khadafy waited “for the world to prove itself unwilling to act.’’ But Kennedy’s arguments didn’t win all the time either. That didn’t stop him from making them, with passion and conviction.

I’ve written that Kerry is running for secretary of state, and it is true he would like the job. But he is also running for something else. It’s a personal race for the comfort zone of saying what he really believes, without worrying about political consequences. In the past, he always ended up edging away from boldness. It happens to all politicians who come to accept the conventional wisdom that the safe middle ground is the only way to advance their ambitions.

The middle ground did not get Kerry to the place he wanted to go — the White House. So now, he is liberated, free to say what he wants. He should revel in that freedom.

Kerry will still take hits for the yacht anchored in Rhode Island as a way to avoid Massachusetts taxes. He will still look stiff when he picks up a child at a Head Start program for a photo opportunity. But in a country of increasingly polarized beliefs, he should also be recognized as a practitioner of civil politics, who advances a specific set of political values with intelligent debate, not mindless talking points.

Like Kennedy, Kerry is also working with political opponents. Yesterday, he and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas proposed bipartisan legislation to create a new infrastructure bank to help finance roads, bridges, and other projects. It’s not sexy, it’s substantive.

Scott Brown, Massachusetts’ junior senator, wants Massachusetts voters to forget the “R’’ next to his name; Kerry is making it clear there’s a “D’’ next to his. He’s embracing what it used to mean to be a Democrat. I hope he doesn’t back down.

The Democrat in the White House has backed down, in the name of pragmatism and reelection. President Obama is holding anti-bullying conferences, much the way President Clinton embraced non-controversial causes like V-chips. He’s cutting programs for poor people to show he’s no bleeding heart liberal. After Democrats like Kerry stood with him on health care reform, he’s letting Republicans like Brown water it down. When it comes to Libya, Obama doesn’t want to look like George W. Bush when he invaded Iraq; he would rather look like George H.W. Bush, who in 1991 encouraged the Iraqi people to stand up to Saddam Hussein and then watched while they were slaughtered.

The world looks different from the White House. A president faces different constraints than the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — particularly if all that president wants is a second term and his advisers are telling him to hug the center no matter how hard the left tries to push him.

Kerry is in a different place, with a different view. Perhaps it allows him to finally see Kennedy’s true legacy. It is better for people to know what you believe in and dislike it, than to dislike you because you lack beliefs.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com.