John Kerry's Climate Change Bill Fight

Instead of explaining why America should end its dependence on oil, supporters of Obama's point man on climate-change legislation are being forced to defend their man. Michael Dukakis and other Kerry boosters tell Samuel P. Jacobs why the senator can get the bill passed.

Even with oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico, the Obama White House faces long odds on getting a tough climate-change bill through Congress. Four months out from midterm elections, Republicans are doing a bang-up job of hanging together, accusing the president of turning an environmental disaster into a political opportunity.

Making matters worse: The point man on climate change, Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, is repelling the people he is trying to attract to his cause. Senatorial whinging in a Politico story Monday made the former presidential candidate sound like the least-liked person in the country’s upper chamber—not just disliked by Republican antagonists but by members of his own party, too. Having Sen. Joe Lieberman, independent of Connecticut, as his legislative wingman probably hasn’t added to the Democrat’s popularity within his caucus. So instead of marshalling their best arguments in defense of changing America’s dependence on oil, Kerry boosters began their week explaining why the senator still has enough juice to get a consequential energy bill passed.

The Daily Beast rounded up several Kerry supporters to defend their man.

“Only in Washington would you get dinged for trying to solve problems instead of ducking them.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, who brought Kerry along with him to Beacon Hill in 1983 as his lieutenant governor, said that if Kerry isn’t up to the task, no one is.

Full coverage of the oil spill “Who do they think is?” Dukakis said. “This is the guy who has been ‘Mr. Environment’ in the Senate for a long time and has been very effective at it. Right now with the economy down, this is tough. I don’t care who the champion might be… I don’t fault John one iota.”

“Only in Washington would you get dinged for trying to solve problems instead of ducking them,” said Kerry spokeswoman Whitney Smith.

Defenders say Kerry is no schlub at the negotiating table.

“He understands politics,” Phil Johnston, former Massachusetts Democratic Party chairman, said. “He didn’t get the nomination for the presidency and come close to winning the White House by being a bad politician.”

Kerry is used to the pressure, said Tad Devine, who advised his 2004 presidential campaign. Devine pointed to that contest as evidence that the senator has the fortitude to withstand a political fight. Kerry’s been in the national spotlight since 1970, when he became a visible antiwar activist. Certainly by now, he’s heard every kind of insult.

“There is always going to be somebody who doesn’t like something, about the way he talks or something else. That’s the way it goes,” Devine said.

The back-biting may just go with the territory.

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“I’m not surprised that there is sniping,” Devine said. “That is part of the way it works. Sometimes within the party caucus we hear it as well.”

Obama will gather that caucus and Republicans together at the White House on Wednesday to see which parts of the legislation are salvageable. Already there’s a sense that an economy-wide plan to limit carbon-dioxide emissions is too ambitious.

Whatever the pressures in Washington, Kerry seems to be putting on a brave face. The senator appeared at a health-care event in Boston on Monday to deliver a speech before 300 people. Neither he, nor four staffers traveling with him, betrayed any apprehension, according to Johnston.

“He was in a good mood,” Johnston said.

Samuel P. Jacobs is a staff reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for The Boston Globe, The New York Observer, and The New Republic Online.