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.
"We're happy to have the help of the countries we got the help of, but we didn't get the U.N. resolution we wanted," he replied.
And, "I don't see any troops on the ground other than Britain."
Australia, I offered. (The Australian embassy says there are 1,000 Aussies in the region.)
Gephardt: "And a few Aussies."
The U.S. Defense Department later noted that more than a dozen countries have personnel on the ground in or around Iraq.
What's more, what Gephardt called unilateral was an effort that attracted 47 other countries. In the name of multinationalism, Gephardt somehow found fault with the "so-called coalition of the willing."
Obviously, the definition of unilateral in the Democrats' dictionary is: multilateral, but not in lockstep with the United Nations. And U.N. really means: Our Betters in France and Germany, since those countries pummeled dissenting views from Eastern European countries. I'll add, the entrance of Polish and Spanish troops in Iraq escaped Gephardt's notice.
Gephardt's biggest problem is that he knows the war was right, but he feels pressured to carp.
When a reporter voiced skepticism that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, Gephardt bristled, "I find it a little strange that some of us seem to want to believe Saddam Hussein."
Me, too. But then I'm not running in the Democratic primary.