Kerry Bounces Back, Hones Diplomatic Role

Posted July 13, 2011 at 6:23pm

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman John Kerry has finally found his groove, following a four-year period bookended by professional failures.

The Massachusetts Democrat won his party’s White House nomination in 2004, only to lose a close race to President George W. Bush in a campaign defined by political missteps. Four years later, Kerry was passed over for secretary of State by President Barack Obama in favor of Hillary Rodham Clinton, despite the fact that he had endorsed Obama over Clinton in the 2008 primary.

But two and a half years into his tenure running the Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry has emerged as an effective chairman and chief Obama ally. He has expanded the policy scope of the panel, enjoyed major legislative success on the president’s foreign policy priorities and traveled extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East on diplomatic missions that were closely coordinated with the White House.

“He’s done exceptionally well,” Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a Foreign Relations member, said Wednesday. “He certainly has even — beyond the committee — used his position as the chair to help the administration [around] the world. And so I think he’s had a remarkable tenure.”

Kerry is still thought to be very interested in moving over to Foggy Bottom if and when Clinton steps down. However, the subject is practically verboten in Kerry-world, with the Senator making it abundantly clear that he is focused on, and thoroughly enjoys, his day job.

Kerry steered the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty with Russia to ratification in December, navigating the kind of partisan waters usually reserved for domestic issues to secure the required
bipartisan supermajority with a couple of votes to spare after nearly a year of wrangling. This month, Kerry was on the cusp of forging bipartisan consensus on Libya before political maneuvering over the debt ceiling bumped the measure from the Senate floor.

Kerry, his aides insist, is satisfied with his Senate work and does not have a wandering eye.

“John Kerry’s not looking for or pondering a new job, end of story. He loves being chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the senior Senator from Massachusetts, period,” spokeswoman Jennifer Berlin said.

Kerry is no stranger to politics. The Vietnam veteran made a national name for himself in 1971, testifying on the war before the very committee he would end up chairing a quarter-century later. He ran unsuccessfully for the House in 1972, was elected lieutenant governor of Massachusetts in 1982, was elected to the Senate in 1984 and ran for president in 2004 — not to mention angling for power in the Senate during his four and a half terms. Until his presidential bid, however, he often served in the shadow of the “liberal lion,” the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), who died in 2009.

But ask Kerry a question about politics, particularly any plans he might have to help Democrats oust top target Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.) in 2012, and he is likely to demur, explaining that his intention this year is to focus on policy. That has included widening the purview of the Foreign Relations Committee, which he has served on during his 26 years in the Senate. Vice President Joseph Biden’s election paved the way for Kerry to become chairman.

Under Kerry, Foreign Relations has incorporated “global climate change” and “economic security and competitiveness” into its policy portfolio. The chairman also established a new investigative unit within the committee to allow the panel to conduct its own review of critical foreign policy matters. Kerry has spearheaded oversight of U.S. relations with Afghanistan and Pakistan while also working to streamline the ability to ratify treaties with allies such as Australia and the United Kingdom.

Kerry’s recent travels have taken him to Afghanistan, Egypt, Pakistan and Sudan. In separate interviews, Menendez and Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) attributed Kerry’s success to his work ethic, depth of knowledge, bipartisanship and the respect he commands among his Senate colleagues. Menendez volunteered that Kerry’s victory in pushing START through the Senate was “John Kerry at his best.”

McCain, who collaborated with Kerry on the bipartisan Libya resolution and previous legislation addressing the change in power in Egypt, lauded the Senator’s work even as he acknowledged their differences. McCain said Kerry’s performance was the most he could have hoped for from a Democrat, given their obvious disagreements on key foreign policy and national security issues.

“We have a number of commonalities,” said McCain, who is more hawkish than the diplomatically inclined Kerry. “John and I have our differences, which are spirited but sort of like mine with [Kennedy]. We have our spirited discussions but overall we work together on a lot of issues.”