Kerry in a Straitjacket

  • Share
  • Read Later
John Kerry suffered a small embarrassment last week that illuminated a big problem in his campaign. The embarrassment involved the not exactly riveting issue of troop redeployments. George W. Bush announced last Monday in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) that he wanted to bring around 70,000 troops home from Germany and North Korea over the next 10 years. In principle, that is not very controversial. The military and foreign policy priesthoods have favored that sort of restructuring since the end of the cold war. And yet, when Kerry spoke to the VFW two days later, he attacked Bush's position, using an argument with some merit but of microscopic import in the midst of a presidential campaign: he said it was a "hasty" and "political" plan and certainly not a good negotiating tactic to withdraw troops from Korea while we are trying to get the North Koreans to drop their nuclear program.

But oops. Some two weeks earlier, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Kerry had taken a different position: "I think we can significantly change the deployment of troops, not just [in Iraq] but ... in the Korean peninsula, perhaps, in Europe, perhaps." As you might imagine, the Bush campaign quickly pointed out the inconsistency.

The stumble raises two basic questions about Kerry's campaign. First, is he a latter-day Ron Burgundy—the idiot 1970s anchorman of Will Ferrell's recent film who would read anything that appeared on his TelePrompTer? Did Kerry not remember what he had said to Stephanopoulos? No, it was, apparently, yet another Kerry nanonuance: he is in favor of redeployments, just not now. The second question is far more dire: Why is Kerry wasting breath on such periphera? Why isn't he hammering Bush on his conduct of the Iraq war and the larger war against Islamist radicalism, which is the most important issue in this election?

The answer is politics. His political consultants don't want him to do it. Their focus groups tell them that the public wants an "optimistic" candidate who offers a "positive plan" rather than a "negative" candidate who criticizes the President. Of course, "every focus group in the history of the world has wanted a candidate with a 'positive plan for the future,'" says James Carville. Unfortunately, focus-group members are also human beings. In a roomful of strangers, they present their most noble selves. They hate political attacks—but not really. They have obviously responded to the scurrilous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign against Kerry's war record, which is why he was forced, finally, to counterattack last week. The Swifties' ability to dominate the news with incendiary nonsense is, I believe, a direct result of Kerry's unwillingness to dominate the news with tart, controversial substance by challenging the President on Iraq.

Kerry's obvious frustration with his self-imposed straitjacket not only leads him into lame forays like the troop-deployment gaffe but also to some tortured circumlocutions about the war. Most spectacular was spokesman James Rubin's recent statement that a President Kerry "in all probability" would have gone to war against Saddam Hussein by now. Oh really? I thought Kerry's position was that he would have waited for U.N. inspectors to complete their process—which, we now know, would not have produced evidence of illegal arms—and that he would have gone to war only with a supple international coalition, which wouldn't have existed without strong indications of weapons of mass destruction.

Actually, Kerry's best moments in this saga have come when he challenged the President's foreign and defense policies. Kerry distinguished himself two years ago by criticizing Bush for not using U.S. troops to attack the trapped al-Qaeda leadership at Tora Bora.

That sort of detailed, sophisticated critique has vanished from Kerry's repertoire. He hasn't had anything of interest to say about the humiliating American retreat from Fallujah—a city that has subsequently become a miniature rogue state within Iraq—or about the mystifying, flip-floppy U.S. attitude toward the Shi'ite revolutionary Muqtada al-Sadr. Kerry hasn't said whether he thinks Bush Administration policy was responsible for the torture at Abu Ghraib. He has mentioned—but hasn't really exploited—the growing sense in the military and intelligence communities that the war has strengthened Islamist radicalism, overburdened the U.S. military, and made it far more difficult to rally the world against the nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.

Kerry does not have to be specific about what he would do in Iraq—the situation on the ground changes daily, so how can he know?—but I suspect the public needs to hear, in plain and forceful language, Kerry's opinion of what Bush has done and whether it has been good for America. Instead, Kerry has offered only vague criticisms and an increasingly implausible promise to lure our allies into the chaos. In a year of real crises—the "most important election of our lifetime," he says—Kerry's nostrums sound distressingly like market-tested pap.