But the Democrats failed to grasp that the Republicans had won the foreign policy debate not because they offered better props and costumes. They won it because they had better ideas. Ever since Reagan, the Democrats have attributed the GOP's advantage on foreign policy to flag-waving, gauzy commercials and cheap appeals to patriotism. Conservatives couldn't possibly be right on the merits! It had to be some trick concocted by Mike Deaver, Lee Atwater or Karl Rove. What the Democrats seemed not to notice was that none of the winning Republican candidates, with the exception of G.H.W. Bush, were war heroes. Bob Dole, who was one, got trounced - and so did the first President Bush in 1992.
So the Democrats figured a Wesley Clark candidacy would be the perfect combination: appealing Democratic ideas married to a shiny uniform and military record. The problem was that Clark was an awful candidate, fundamentally dishonest in his pose as a dovish liberal (I think he probably is one now). If Clark had run and won the nomination as the man he was supposed to have been, he would now be able to claim that he is better qualified to get the job done in Iraq.
But the Democrats nominated John Kerry instead. And since the liberal senator had run successfully in Massachusetts as a self-proclaimed war hero in the past, and because his Vietnam ads worked for him in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, his handlers figured they could follow the same strategy against Bush. (Actually, exit polls showed that most Democrats didn't like Kerry so much as they thought his military record made him the most electable candidate.) That's why the Kerry campaign spent months insisting that his service in Vietnam made him more qualified to be commander-in-chief than George W. Bush. Kerry made his convention debut a "This is Your Life" replay of his Vietnam service, ending the story at the point when he became an actual senator.
Meanwhile, President Bush has laid out serious ideas about where he wants to go and why. There's plenty of room for decent criticism of his ideas, but at least they're ideas.
The good news is that Kerry is finally offering some ideas. The bad news - for him - is that they're the wrong ones. But hey, at least they're ideas.