By now you must have heard John Kerry say this: "I know something about aircraft carriers for real. And if George Bush wants to make this election about national security, I have three words for him he'll understand: Bring. It. On."
I love this tagline, not because I think Kerry is a smidgen as macho as he pretends to be, but because it's a sign that we can finally put to rest a grand canard of American politics.
For more than a generation the Democrats have convinced themselves that they have a brilliant foreign policy but that their message gets lost because they are unwilling to wrap themselves in patriotic, jingoistic rhetoric.
According to this theory, Michael Dukakis was a foreign policy genius, but those mean Republicans made fun of how he looked in a tank. Indeed the whole Wes Clark campaign is (about to be was) premised on the notion that you can run like a dove if you look like a hawk.
That didn't work out, so the Democrats got the next best thing in Kerry: Michael Dukakis with an impeccable war record - and an impeccable anti-war record.
The war record we know all about already. Kerry served with honor and distinction in Vietnam, earning several medals for his courage and valor. As for his anti-war record, among other things, Kerry outrageously slandered the men still fighting in Vietnam as war criminals and butchers, claiming in congressional testimony that American soldiers had participated in widespread "day-to-day" atrocities such as rape, torture and mutilation.
Regardless, that's not the John Kerry who's running for president. Candidate Kerry is the guy in uniform. In fact, according to most analysts and a recent lengthy behind-the-scenes account in The Boston Globe, John Kerry owes his campaign turnaround almost completely to his willingness to run as a war hero.
The political ad that got him moving in the polls is the one that brags about his leadership in Vietnam. In the ad, a Navy crewmate says, "He had unfailing instinct and unchallengeable leadership." Kerry follows up by saying ,"There's a sense, after Vietnam, that every other day is extra, that you have to do what's right and let the chips fall where they may." It's a very well-done ad. And the message is clear. Kerry the politician is Kerry the war hero.
But that message is largely nonsense. There's next to nothing in Kerry's legislative career that would earn him a Profiles in Courage Award (assuming the senior senator from Massachusetts doesn't pull some strings for him). He authored almost no significant legislation and voted as an utterly conventional Massachusetts liberal.
More to the point, Kerry's "leadership" on foreign policy has been abysmal. He voted against the first Gulf War, for the second and then against the money necessary to keep the peace, i.e. to "nation-build," which was once the core of liberal foreign policy. He's offered multiple explanations for each of those votes, many of them conflicting.
He was against almost every weapons system during the Cold War and he sided with the nuclear freeze movement. He still boasts of fighting "Ronald Reagan's illegal wars in Central America," which, to be charitable, was not the stance taken by pro-defense Democrats in the 1980s. He was one of the few Democrats who voted against lifting the arms embargo that was contributing to the mass slaughter of Bosnians.
Kerry's 1997 book on foreign policy, which he touts as prophetic on the war on terrorism, predicted that various mafias - not al-Qaida, not Islamic fundamentalism - posed the biggest threat to national security. It also underscored Kerry's view that the war on terrorism is nothing more than a law enforcement problem.
Whether Kerry's record reflects a coherent foreign policy or, more likely, a history of knee-jerk liberalism tempered by opportunism remains an open question. But what is clear is that Kerry represents the Democratic establishment's approach to foreign policy: adverse to the use of force, quick to defer to other nations and the U.N., untethered to an identifiable principle when caught in the winds of public or elite opinion. But, unlike previous Democratic candidates, he's a war hero.
Meanwhile, as Kerry is so quick to point out these days, George W. Bush isn't. He served in the National Guard and lackadaisically at that.
But Bush's policy is hardly lackadaisical. He says this is a war, not a law enforcement exercise. He prefers regime change to appeasement, democratic change over tyrannical stability. He thinks the U.N. is a tool of foreign policy, not a dictator of it.
This is a real contest of visions during a time when foreign policy matters to voters. So, if Americans reject Kerry in favor of Bush no one will be able to claim the American people didn't choose on the merits of the message instead of medals of the messenger. Let the contest begin.