The Significance of the Kerry Endorsement

It’s easy to view John Kerry’s endorsement of Barack Obama skeptically. After all, no one voting in any upcoming Democratic primary is going to pause in the voting booth and think, “Gee, if Obama is good enough for John Kerry, he’s good enough for me.”

But Kerry’s endorsement is nonetheless significant, because of its timing. In the wake of his New Hampshire defeat, Obama needs to convey the impression that his campaign is still on the offensive and that the loss hasn’t stalled his momentum at all. The willingness of a big name in the Democratic Party to embrace him two days after New Hampshire caters to this imperative, giving Obama a favorable headline that helps put the New Hampshire mess in the rearview mirror.

Pundits are also playing up Kerry’s snub of his ’04 running-mate, John Edwards. But it’s been clear for some time that the Kerry-Edwards marriage was an awkward and uncomfortable political one from the start. The two men never got along particularly well and fell out of touch almost as soon as the ’04 campaign ended. There was never much expectation that Kerry would back Edwards, just as Edwards made it clear very early on that he planned to run for President this year even if Kerry chose to do so as well.

Politically, this is a smart move for Kerry. By endorsing Obama, he has found a way to stand out. Most of his Senate colleagues are backing Hillary or sitting on the fence. By lending his support to Obama—and at such a critical time—he guarantees that his endorsement will be remembered. If Obama ends up winning, Kerry might be in line for a top-level appointment, should he desire one. Had he backed Clinton, though, he would have been only the latest Democratic establishment figure to do so and it wouldn’t have made much noise. The line for favors with her is already a mile long, and he would have been pretty close to the end of it.