WATERLOO, Iowa – Only days after President Trump walked the country to the brink of war and back, John Kerry rolled into this small riverfront city in a motor coach emblazoned with the words “Battle for the Soul of the Nation.”
The campaign bus and slogan belong to Kerry’s longtime Washington colleague and friend, former vice president Joe Biden, who’s seeking the same prize Kerry secured in frigid Iowa 16 winters ago — a caucus win to propel him to the Democratic presidential nomination.
But Biden wasn’t on board.
Kerry was the headliner of a band of lesser-known politicians barnstorming in his stead before the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses. It was an unusual ride for a former Secretary of State who came within some 120,000 votes in Ohio of winning the presidency: campaigning for — but not with — a candidate.
Seated in a cramped space in the back of the motor coach that was decked out with a horseshoe sectional and a miniature flat screen, Kerry said he was motivated to launch his own second act in Iowa as a campaign surrogate because Trump’s actions have shattered world diplomacy and increased the threat of nuclear proliferation.
"It is just unforgivable to sit on the sidelines,” he said.
So the former Massachusetts senator has returned to the scene of one of his biggest political victories.
In the 2004 race, Kerry blazed past the same ice-covered cornfields to prove he was the candidate most suited for the nation’s top job amid a backdrop of tumultuous American foreign policy in the Middle East. Now, days ahead of the Iowa caucuses, as tensions between the US and Iran continued to brew, here he was again, trying to recapture some of the magic from his come-from-behind victory in this early voting state and sprinkle it on Biden.
Former Connecticut senator Chris Dodd is not surprised to see Kerry put his experience to use for Biden as the Trump administration has sought to unravel the legacy they left from working together under President Obama.
“I don’t think any one of us want to wake up the day after the election and ask ourselves — did I do enough?” said Dodd, who served with them on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “I don’t know if John feels that way, but I have strong suspicions he does."
Biden is the national polling frontrunner alongside Senator Bernie Sanders, even as he has seen his lead slip in some state polls; others in the race, Senator Elizabeth Warren and former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, are bunched near the top, too. Kerry endorsed Biden last month when he seemed to be struggling in Iowa.
Sixteen years ago, Kerry was also an establishment Democrat facing a more progressive, antiwar candidate — Howard Dean — with an awe-inspiring grassroots fund-raising network organized online. And like Biden, Kerry had faced withering criticism from his opponents over his vote to give President George W. Bush the authority to invade Iraq.
But Kerry rallied and won Iowa. A week later, he took New Hampshire and rocketed to the nomination. Now, Kerry said he could see Iowa becoming a similar launching pad for Biden.
“In 2004, we had problems in Iraq, and we had a president making very bad decisions,” Kerry told some 30 people at a modest campaign office in downtown Waterloo last week. “So, here we are — 2020, and it seems like déjà vu.”
On the bus, where a metallic “2020” New Year’s Day streamer was strung across a window and the black leather couches looked worn, he fiercely defended Biden’s foreign policy track record just as he had once defended his own as a presidential candidate who also cast a controversial vote authorizing the Iraq War.
“He didn’t support the war any more than I did,” Kerry said, arguing that Bush and his administration had promised to build an international coalition and exhaust all means of diplomacy before going to war. “That’s not a vote for the war. Nobody should interpret it like that — that [vote] was just a mistake.”
Kerry and Biden have been criticized for trying to have it both ways on the Iraq war. Because of that, Kerry evokes Biden’s strengths, while also the potential downside of an extensive public career.
Kerry was fiercely attacked in the 2004 campaign by some former Vietnam veterans who sought to invalidate his military experience through a coordinated and later discredited political campaign. Trump has sought to similarly sink Biden’s prospects through the spread of conspiracy theories about his son Hunter’s dealings in Ukraine.
"For Democrats who remember 2004, John Kerry represents the pitfalls of nominating a supposedly safe, electable candidate,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist who worked for John Edwards when he ran against Kerry in that year’s primary. “He’s a reminder of what happens when we vote with our heads instead of our hearts.”
Bill Nelson, a former senator from Florida and longtime friend to Kerry and Biden, contended there were major differences between then and now.
“In ’04, the Democrats wanted to beat Bush bad,” he said. “But now the Democrats are on a messianic mission to beat Trump, and I believe that has inured greatly to Joe Biden’s benefit because people see him — consistently from day one — as the person who can beat him.”
Kerry and Biden hit the road together last month on the closing stretch of Biden’s “No Malarkey” bus tour. This month, they split their appearances across the state as Kerry embarked on a “We Know Joe” tour with a rotating cast of surrogates from Iowa and beyond.
For those who worked for Kerry’s 2004 campaign, seeing him on the road brought back memories of him cruising by motor coach or flying himself on a chartered helicopter during those grueling final days ahead of the Iowa caucuses. New friends and old friends came through for Kerry then, too — "in ways that were extraordinary,” he wrote in his memoir, “Every Day is Extra.”
One of them was Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who stumped with him so much that a Kerry adviser told the New York Times then that “it was like having a second candidate.” Others included Max Cleland, a former US senator from Georgia and triple-amputee Vietnam veteran, and 1960s folk musician Peter Yarrow.
It was the prolonged meeting process with voters in Iowa that Kerry said made him a better candidate.
“It wasn’t easy — in fact, it was demanding as hell — but it was genuine,” he wrote.
Riding on the bus alongside Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and South Carolina State Representative Marvin Pendarvis on Jan. 10, Kerry often grew nostalgic. He recalled the huge corn dogs and sculpted butter cow he first saw at the Iowa State Fair, and told voters it was the place where he “learned how to measure my life by the height of your corn.” The Biden campaign posted a video on social media of Kerry scanning an Iowa store shelf for Oreos during last week’s bus trip.
Some people came solely to listen to Kerry, holding copies of his memoir for him to sign, lamenting his loss in the ’04 general election, and wondering what the current state of world affairs would be like if Kerry had become president.
“It was like traveling with a rock star,” said Bottoms, who drew her own fans for winning a contentious election in which Trump and race were strong undercurrents.
After hearing Kerry him deliver a resounding message for Biden, Marcia Buttgen, 70, who first saw Kerry speak at an airport hangar in 2004, said she was swayed. Nearby, Mary Meier, 69, was thrilled to see him campaigning for Biden, both members of an Obama administration she said had functioned like “a fine-tuned orchestra.”
Later, at an event in a campaign office tucked in a Cedar Rapids shopping plaza, where a small but lively smattering of voters gathered, Jeff Stephen, a 62-year-old retired carpenter, waited with a copy of “Every Day is Extra” after losing another book Kerry signed in a flood, and Bottoms introduced Kerry as “her new best friend on the bus.”
Stephen preferred the more progressive candidates on health care, but said he knew that in this election he had to put his personal interests aside.
“I believe Joe Biden — or John Kerry — is as best as we get to get us out of this terrible mess that Trump has put us in,” Stephen said.