Of course Democratic presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt was a hit Tuesday. He was bashing President Bush in San Francisco -- better yet, in front of the city's bar association. He spoke in his usual gentlemanly, authoritative tone. No surprise that a number of those in the audience gave him a standing ovation.
But I don't think Gephardt really believed his own speech.
I particularly question his statement that got the most ink in news reports: "I'm running for president because I believe George Bush has left us less safe and less secure than we were four years ago."
As Weekly Standard editor William Kristol wrote in The Washington Post, "Is this the case? Were we safer and more secure when Osama bin Laden was unimpeded in assembling his terror network in Afghanistan? ... When Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq?"
Some far-lefties might believe America is worse off, especially if they're among those who root for any mayhem likely to bury Bush in 2004. But Gephardt is too grounded to be among their ranks.
Clearly, the House minority leader has to say something: He voted to authorize the war in Iraq. He made it clear that Hussein was a threat, deserving of regime change. Tuesday he reiterated, "I make no apologies for supporting the war in Iraq."
But Gephardt is running for president in a primary that often favors the Bush-hating left over the pragmatic center. Rivals -- notably former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean -- have gained points in states such as California for sniping at Bush about the war (and everything else).
The four Dems who voted for the war -- Gephardt and Sens. John Edwards of North Carolina, John Kerry of Massachusetts and Joe Lieberman of Connecticut -- have been stuck with the option of largely supporting Bush on the war, or hedging their support of the war with criticism of the way Bush waged it.
Edwards and Kerry cynically and frequently have been straddling the position. On Tuesday, Gephardt joined them. And while his remarks played well to the left-leaning lawyers, his arguments would not work well in a general election.
Gephardt referred to Bush's "chest-beating unilateralism." He charged that the administration was "wrong to short-circuit the world community." And he said of current peacekeeping efforts, "This looming quagmire is on our shoulders alone."
At a press conference afterward, I asked Gephardt if saying U.S. troops were fighting alone slighted British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who both have sent troops to Iraq.
Gephardt answered that Blair agreed with him and had urged Bush to go to the United Nations.