The news that New School president and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey plans to endorse Hillary Clinton and campaign on her behalf in Iowa is probably most noteworthy for its irony. Perhaps no Democrat in the 1990’s was as persistent a thorn in both Clintons’ sides as Kerrey was.
Here’s a brief recap of their relationship:
• In 1991 and 1992, both Mr. Kerrey and Bill Clinton seek the Democratic nomination. A decorated Vietnam combat veteran, Mr. Kerrey is initially deemed the front-runner, but his chaotic and unfocused campaign quickly loses traction, and Mr. Clinton seizes the top slot. Mr. Kerrey then shreds Mr. Clinton for avoiding service in Vietnam and says that Republicans will open him up “like a soft peanut” in the fall. Mr. Kerrey drops out of the race in early March with little to show for his effort other than a meaningless win in South Dakota.
• Despite the contentious primary sniping, Mr. Kerrey emerges as a finalist for Mr. Clinton’s vice presidential slot in July 1992, with many Democrats pushing the idea that a Southern governor with a potential draft-dodging problem badly needed the balance that a Midwestern senator and war hero would provide. Reports surface that Hillary Clinton—still enraged over Mr. Kerrey’s primary season tactics—vetoes his selection. Publicly, Bill Clinton denies the reports, but Mr. Kerrey is bypassed in favor of Al Gore.
• In the summer of 1993, Mr. Clinton’s infant presidency, already knocked off course by the gays-in-the-military fiasco and his futile push for a $16 billion “economic stimulus” package, seems to hang in the balance. Facing a wall of Republican opposition and Southern Democratic defections, his controversial budget is one vote shy of final passage in the Senate. The key holdout? Bob Kerrey, who torments the White House (at one point he and Clinton had a heated phone call in which Kerrey told the president that he resented the implication that his ‘no’ vote could bring down the presidency) until finally, late in the night, assenting to give the budget its 50th vote. (Vice President Gore then broke the tie).
• Mr. Kerrey, who championed an expansive national health care program during his 1992 campaign, sounds a much more conservative note on the subject as Hillary Clinton pushes her health care plan in 1993 and 1994, delivering a blow to the administration when he joins several moderate-to-conservative Democrats in endorsing a scaled-back plan drawn up by Republican Senator John Chafee.
• As Democrats, hobbled by President Clinton’s low poll numbers, suffer historic defeats in the 1994 midterm election, Mr. Kerrey publicly brands the president “an unusually good liar,” stoking talk that he will challenge Clinton in the 1996 Democratic primaries. Paul Tsongas, who competed with Kerrey and Clinton in the ’92 primaries, publicly endorses a Kerrey candidacy. Ultimately, Mr. Kerrey begs off and instead chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee in 1996.
• As Bill Clinton and his allies seek to clear the 2000 Democratic field for Al Gore, Mr. Kerrey (after himself declining to run) opts to endorse Bill Bradley, the only Democrat who ends up challenging Mr. Gore, and cuts an ad for him in New Hampshire.
Mr. Kerrey’s motives for endorsing Hillary Clinton now are anyone’s guess. His actions have been unpredictable, and in many cases contradictory, through the years. Maybe he simply genuinely believes she’s the right candidate. Maybe as New York’s senator she’s been particularly good to the New School. At least we can rule out one typical endorsement motivation: wanting to be vice president. Since Mr. Kerrey and Mrs. Clinton are both New York residents, they are constitutionally barred from running together next fall.
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