In fact, when he declared his presidential candidacy in the fall of 1991, he was the front-runner in an unusually small, weak, and (thanks to President George H.W. Bush’s stratospheric post-Gulf War popularity) late-starting Democratic field. But he was largely a flop, unsure, it seemed, of what his own message was. Ultimately, he pushed trade protectionism and a single payer health care system, positions that were pushed by his consultant, Robert Shrum, but that were largely at odds with the more centrist principles Mr. Kerrey articulated before the race—and that he would articulate after it.
Meanwhile Mr. Clinton and Mr. Tsongas zoomed past him in the polls, one selling compassion and empathy, the other offering an ascetic’s call for personal sacrifice and honesty from government. Mr. Kerrey won just 11 percent in New Hampshire, barely edging out Iowa’s Tom Harkin for third place, and—after a largely meaningless win in South Dakota—quit the race after a poor showing on “Junior Tuesday” in early March 1992.
But his compelling biography kept the talk of a future Kerrey run very much alive. In July 1992, his Vietnam service made him one of Mr. Clinton’s running-mate finalists. When Mr. Clinton became president, the relationship between the two was stormy, with Mr. Kerrey challenging Mr. Clinton’s commitment to deficit reduction and entitlement reform, hot issues at the time. His outspoken independence positioned Mr. Kerrey as a Democratic heavyweight as 2000 approached, simultaneously erasing memories of his ’92 shortcomings. That he ultimately passed on a second presidential bid took many by surprise. Instead, he left the Senate in 2000 and headed for New York. The Nebraska Senate opening was unquestionably his best chance to get back in the game. The state’s other seat is held by a Democrat, Ben Nelson, and won’t be open until 2012—when Mr. Kerrey will be 69, and when Mr. Nelson will presumably run once again.
On paper, Mr. Kerrey might be a tempting vice-presidential pick in 2008 for Hillary Clinton, given his military credentials, demonstrated independence, and heartland ties. But that won’t happen: Besides potential residency issues (a President and Vice-President can’t be from the same state), it was supposedly Mrs. Clinton who nixed Mr. Kerrey’s vice-presidential chances back in ’92, resentful of his attacks during the primary campaign on her husband’s Vietnam avoidance. And Mr. Kerrey’s sharp public criticisms of Bill Clinton would also create headaches that no presidential campaign wants.
He might make a better fit on a Barack Obama-led ticket, again because of his military record and foreign policy experience. But there are problems with this idea too. For one, Mr. Obama’s calling card is his fresh-thinking, evidenced by his early opposition to the Iraq war. But Mr. Kerrey supported the invasion and has voiced support in the past for the aggressive overseas posture at the root of the invasion. There’s also the issue of Mr. Kerrey’s role, as the leader of a Navy SEAL team, in the massacre of Thanh Phong, a peasant village in Vietnam. Accounts of Mr. Kerrey’s exact role and of the exact nature of the killings vary, but would Mr. Obama, or any other nominee, really want to venture into these waters?
Mr. Kerrey was one of the more colorful and intriguing figures in American politics over the past few decades. He’s only 64 now, but his decision this week all but ensures that he’s done in politics for good.