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The brief hype about a John Kerry presidential run, briefly explained

Kerry said he’s “absolutely not running for president” following a report that he wanted to run to stymie Sanders.

Kerry speaks at a podium, with Biden looking on.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry stumping for former Vice President Joe Biden in Iowa.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry “is absolutely not running for president” in a bid to stop the rise of Sen. Bernie Sanders — and says any suggestion otherwise is “fucking (or categorically) false.”

If you’re wondering how we got here — with one of former Vice President Joe Biden’s top surrogates denying that he’s considering his own run — it starts with Sanders’s recent surge in Iowa polls, increasingly close national polls that show him closing in on Biden, and, most proximately, an NBC news report.

Sunday, NBC News’s Jonathan Allen and Allan Smith reported that a member of the NBC team heard Kerry seeming to lay out the broad strokes of a presidential campaign, saying, “Maybe I’m fucking deluding myself here,” before detailing what he would have to do to win the nomination amid “the possibility of Bernie Sanders taking down the Democratic Party — down whole.”

That plan reportedly included appealing to rich and powerful Democrats who are concerned about “the reality of Bernie.”

But soon after the report was published Sunday evening, Kerry called it, “fucking (or categorically) false” in a tweet he later deleted, replacing it with a more polished statement: “I am absolutely not running for president. ... I’ve been proud to campaign with my good friend Joe Biden, who is going to win the nomination, beat Trump, and make an outstanding president.”

He followed that with a statement to NBC News, saying, “A friend who watches too much cable called me wondering whether I’d ever jump into the race late in the game if Democrats were choosing an unelectable nominee. I listed all the reasons I could not possibly do that and would not — and will not under any circumstances — do that.”

“Everyone knows that John Kerry is all in for us,” Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign, told NBC, a sentiment echoed by a campaign official who spoke with Vox, noting that Kerry has spent significant time in Iowa making the case for Biden.

Reports like NBC’s have Sanders casting himself as the anti-establishment candidate

The NBC story came as report after report after report emerges describing “establishment” Democrats worrying about Sanders’s rise in the polls.

Some of these reports are from anonymous sources — like a November Politico report that stated former President Barack Obama, at least for a time, told those close to him that he would be willing to intervene in the primary if it appeared Sanders might receive the nomination.

But others have been on the record, like former Obama chief of staff and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who told the Associated Press, “You need a candidate with a message that can help us win swing voters in battleground states. The degree of difficulty dramatically increases under a Bernie Sanders candidacy. It just gets a lot harder.”

And while Sanders has a number of lawmakers backing him, from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Rep. Ro Khanna, others have expressed concern that having him at the top of the ticket will make things very difficult for Congress members running in swing states.

“I come from a state that’s pretty damn red. There is no doubt that having ‘socialist’ ahead of ‘Democrat’ is not a positive thing in the state of Montana,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) said in January.

And, of course, there are the negative comments that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to make about Sanders.

Clinton reportedly has some harsh words for the senator in an upcoming Hulu documentary, in which she says, in part, “Nobody likes him, nobody wants to work with him, he got nothing done. He was a career politician. It’s all just baloney and I feel so bad that people got sucked into it.”

When asked by the Hollywood Reporter in January if she stands by that assessment, Clinton said she did, although she later released a statement promising to support the 2020 nominee, whoever it is.

In an episode of the podcast Your Primary Playlist released Friday, Clinton again offered a less-than-flattering assessment of her formal rival, saying that in 2016, “all the way up until the end, a lot of people highly identified with his campaign were urging people to vote third party, urging people not to vote.”

These sorts of comments have upset some Sanders supporters, like his surrogate Rep. Rashida Tlaib, who booed a mention of Clinton’s name Friday (Tlaib later apologized), but Sanders himself has come to embrace them.

“You can tell how good I feel by how nervous the establishment is getting,” the senator said during a late January campaign event. “Suddenly, we have the Democratic establishment very nervous about this campaign. ... They’re starting to think, could this really happen?”

And that message didn’t end with that speech — the Sanders campaign took those words and made them the center of the senator’s final pre-Iowa caucuses campaign ad, released Monday.

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