It was big news that Sen. John Kerry agreed to play Mitt Romney in simulated debate with President Obama. Our senior senator has been so low-profile he became our unseen senator. Indeed, in Washington, D.C., he’s thought to be quietly biding his time, hoping to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of State if the president wins a second term.
Playing a presidential candidate in debate, even though it’s just practice, poses a risk for the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee. It could awaken demons of ambition in him.
Sure, we expect our politicians to be comfortable with fantasy. Most will have no trouble relating to the new movie, “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.” They imagine that they too might save the country by slaying villains… not with an ax, but with cutting rhetoric.
To appreciate the risk Kerry is taking for his country, let’s drop into their first practice.
The two debaters are on a stage in the White House. The audience is just a few advisers, including chief strategist David Axelrod.
KERRY: Could we make my podium a little smaller, so I look even taller?
AXELROD: This is just pretend. Imagine that it’s smaller.
OBAMA: You are plenty tall already, Mitt.
KERRY: You mean, John.
OBAMA: I’m trying to help you get into character.
KERRY: Oh, good idea. What’s my motivation?
OBAMA: You’re trying to make me look bad.
KERRY: No, I really want to know — what’s my motivation?
OBAMA: Your motivation is that you want to make me look bad. You’re running against me. You don’t like me.
KERRY: That’s not true. You’re likable enough, Barack.
OBAMA: Uh, are you playing Mitt now, or yourself? Axe, tell us when we’re starting.
AXELROD: OK, let’s begin with “Why are you running?” Gov. Romney, you go first.
KERRY: I’m running because the country needs a change. President Obama is a nice guy, but he’s in over his head as president. He made huge promises when he ran, with overblown rhetoric, unlike the Democratic presidential nominee who ran before in ’04. And unlike that nominee, Sen. Obama didn’t have the experience or –
OBAMA: Wait a minute, hold on. I know we’re not supposed to interrupt in rehearsal, but that’s not what Romney would say. We need to practice with stuff he’d really say.
KERRY: Did I throw you a curve?
OBAMA: Yes, it didn’t sound believable.
KERRY: So you were thrown off your game. It was a surprise. That’s what Romney is going to try to do to you.
OBAMA: Well, yeah, he’ll try to surprise me — but not by praising you. Even though I know you two get along all right.
KERRY: What are you implying? That we’re two amigos because we’re both Mass. pols? Are you suggesting that I love the guy and subconsciously want to see him win?
AXELROD: Innocent misunderstanding! Let’s get back on track. Senator — I mean, Mitt — let’s go on to a new question. What are you going to do to fix the economy?
KERRY: Is it all right if I point out the obvious — that President Obama has failed to grow the economy?
OBAMA: Are you asking that as Mitt… or as John who is supposed to be playing Mitt?
KERRY: If you keep interrupting, how can I help you by pointing out your failings?
AXELROD: Uh, are you asking him that as John, or as the Mitt stand-in?
OBAMA: I’m confused. This role-playing isn’t working.
KERRY: If I were president, I wouldn’t be confused about the roles I’m playing. I would be very clear as leader of the free world.
OBAMA: You mean, if you had been elected in 2004, instead of losing to Bush?
KERRY: I only ran before in 2008.
OBAMA: Oh, you’re speaking as Romney.
KERRY: Axe, how can I play the stand-in when he keeps getting confused? We need a presidential candidate who does not seem confused.
(Popping up from the audience of advisers, Bill Clinton hurries to the stage and nudges Obama away from the podium.)
CLINTON: I thought you’d never ask. OK, let’s go back to that question of why I am running for president…