Exclusive: Bob Kerrey Runs Hard On Old Washington

Bob Kerrey, the Democrat and former governor of Nebraska who is running this fall to win back the U.S. Senate seat he held from 1989 until 2001, said Tuesday he was lured back into public life by something many in Washington find increasingly elusive: the potential to solve lingering national problems the old fashioned way, with strong bipartisan cooperation.

“The thing that pulls me back into the public space, into a campaign that will be exceptionally difficult to win, is the fact that we postponed a number of very significant problems that will only get worse with the remedies on the table,” he told The National Memo.

His initial campaign announcement on February 29 came one day after Maine Republican Olympia Snowe retired because she said she couldn’t deal with the partisan gridlock caused by a Republican Party that has raised filibustering in the upper chamber to a high art form. And to be sure, Kerrey is well aware that the disastrous war in Iraq and economic collapse have sharpened ideological divides since he left Washington to become president of the New School in New York. But the former businessman and Vietnam Medal of Honor winner believes that the fights of the Obama years don’t have to break along party lines, and is fond of conjuring up images of a time when now-legendary bipartisan Senate relationships like that between Democrat George Mitchell and Republican Bob Dole forged national policy.

Republicans disagree. Already in the short time since Kerrey joined the field to replace outgoing Democrat Ben Nelson, Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS has spent $80,000 on a TV ad campaign savaging him for allegedly cutting a “backroom deal” with Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid on seniority privileges should he win the seat. Perhaps it’s because while Nelson was a thorn in the side of his party, a centrist who voted with Republicans much of the time, Kerrey has occasionally taken progressive stands on issues like universal access to healthcare and marijuana legalization. He quickly responded to the TV attack by going on the air with two ads of his own, reintroducing himself as a moderate problem solver and real Nebraskan whose decade in Greenwich Village has not led him astray.

In a wide-ranging discussion with The National Memo, he articulated a populist political message that echoes recent concerns over increasing income inequality.

“When men and women go to work and obey the law, they should share in the results of the production,” Kerrey said. “And the market won’t always value them the way we value them personally, the way we value teachers or the people who manufacture our products. The market won’t always place the same value and we’ll have to adjust with laws and taxes, or trade policies. That [approach] separates me from mainstream Republican ideology.”

But Nebraska has lurched even further to the right since Kerrey left the Senate.

“He has got a long row to hoe,” said Michael Wagner, a political scientist at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and an expert on local politics.

To win, Kerrey will have to catch a few breaks. First, he needs a weak GOP opponent, like Sharon Angle, the Tea Party-backed conservative whose extreme views and controversial statements helped Reid survive a brutal year for Nevada Democrats in 2010. Angle riled up the conservative base but alienated moderates, handing the long-unpopular Reid a surprisingly comfortable victory in a state that had seemed to turn against him.

Conservative Don Stenberg, who is attacking Republican frontrunner Attorney General Jon Bruning from the right for being untrustworthy on social issues (and getting some support from the conservative blogosphere), could fill this role, according to Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report. He’s a perennial candidate — and a consistent loser, going down to Chuck Hagel in the primary in 1996, Ben Nelson in the general election in 2000, and Mike Johanns in the primary (again) in 2006.

Kerrey also needs a strong performance from President Obama in the Omaha area, where he won the congressional district (and because of state law, an electoral vote) in 2008. A robust campaign organization and enthused liberal base could help Kerrey compensate for what will likely be weaker numbers in the more rural parts of the state.

But most important to Kerrey’s hopes is “the increasing number of Nebraskans who don’t affiliate with either party, and how they feel about him,” Wagner said. “Do they think it’s okay to move back to your sister’s house before the filing deadline?” Indeed, the carpetbagger label — and whether it sticks on the former Navy SEAL — will be a key factor in the race.

“They’re going to talk about his very public musings in 2005 about running for mayor in New York, and I suspect the New School will eventually be an issue,” said Duffy.

Kerrey brushed off the chatter about his time away from the state as nonsense that Nebraskans would reject.

“I have no hope that the Republican Party in Nebraska will ever learn what a carpetbagger really was in the 19th century,” he said. “It’s quite common for people to leave their home and find employment someplace else, and quite common for them to come home.”

He will surely highlight his budget cutting as governor and a moderate track-record during two terms in the Senate. But healthcare could be tricky for Kerrey, who based his 1992 presidential campaign on a universal scheme not altogether unlike Obama’s. Like many to his left, he says the Obama plan that became law in 2010 doesn’t go far enough. Polls show healthcare reform remains toxic in the Cornhusker state, which made headlines for a special deal Nelson brokered to save the state money in the law’s mandated expansion of Medicaid; the provision was struck from the final bill.

“It is false choice to say, ‘Are you for repealing the Affordable Care Act?’, which is called Obamacare in Nebraska,” Kerrey said. “My answer will be no, and I will say to whoever the Republican nominee is: it’s not enough to say yes or no. Because the problem still persists. We’re spending 17 percent of GDP on healthcare today, more than any other industrial nation. It is a tapeworm inside the economy of our country and the Affordable Care Act didn’t solve that problem.”

Kerrey comes across as the happy warrior, especially when proposing ways to tackle the entitlement funding issues over which the political class occasionally works itself into a bipartisan frenzy. He cited economist Alice Rivlin’s partial privatization approach as preferable to that of Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsin Republican budget guru whose effort already has the sheer of bipartisanship thanks to Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon.

“I’m intrigued by the Wyden-Ryan plan only because [bipartisanship] is the only way you’re going to solve this problem of overhang, almost $40 trillion of unfunded liability,” he said of the plan, which would shift Medicare toward becoming a voucher program, if less aggressively than Ryan’s original proposal. “Social Security’s actually a relatively small problem compared to Medicare. It begins with the partnership of a prominent influential Republican and influential Democrat. That’s what [former Missouri Senator] Jack Danforth and I tried to do in the ’90s. You cannot withstand the attacks of the left and right unless you begin with a strong partnership.”

Whether there will be any moderate Republicans remaining for him to partner with is an open question.

“You can aspire all you want to bipartisanship, but you need partners,” said Norm Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. “And they’ve been increasingly difficult to come by. Kerrey was very good at doing this when he was in the Senate before, but the real question is whether there is any kind of possibility of reconstituting the kind of Senate that there was when he was there, and the answer is it’s a real uphill battle.”


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