Charles Krauthammer

WASHINGTON -- With John Kerry as their presumptive candidate, the Democrats may have won the war issue.

True, Bush will make the case that his post-9/11 policies are infinitely tougher. And Kerry certainly has given him an opening, saying that the war on terror is ``primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation.''

This is a hopelessly retrograde invocation of the antiterrorism policies that brought us 9/11 -- finding, arresting, and putting on trial individual miscreants, as we did the World Trade Center bombers of 1993 -- but it does not matter. War is more a visceral than an intellectual issue. Kerry holds the trump card. He's fought in battle. And acted heroically.

Kerry is where he is today not because of his message, or his new-found populism, or his newly relaxed face, but because the same week Howard Dean angrily told a questioner/heckler, ``You've had your say. And now I'm going to have my say,'' John Kerry welcomed onto his stage in Iowa a tearful war buddy for their first reunion since Kerry saved his life 30 years ago in Vietnam.

End of contest.

However much Democrats want to deny it -- and insist on talking about health care and budgets and tax cuts -- this is a war election, our first war election in more than a decade. Ironically, they may win because of it.

For 2 1/2 years it looked as if the political beneficiary of 9/11 was President Bush. But Bush, never a believer in hoarding political capital, spent his post-9/11 and post-Afghanistan popularity on Iraq. The big political beneficiary of 9/11 turns out to be Kerry.

Sept. 11 changed the rules of presidential electoral politics. Or, more accurately, it returned us to an earlier set of rules that prevailed in Cold War days. Every single president elected during the Cold War had served in some capacity in the military.

It is no accident that Bill Clinton, who never served, was the first post-Cold War president. It is no accident that Bob Dole, who ran in the second post-Cold War presidential election, got absolutely no political traction out of his background as genuine war hero. During the end-of-history '90s, military service seemed an irrelevance.

Sept. 11 reminded us that the `90s were an anomaly. And upon returning to a world of mortal conflict with people who really want you destroyed, you instinctively want someone not new to the idea of war.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer is a 1987 Pulitzer Prize winner, 1984 National Magazine Award winner, and a columnist for The Washington Post since 1985.

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