Back in the primary season, one of John Kerry's press aides was challenged by a reporter who characterized Kerry's stand on Iraq as "ambivalent." Well, that was all right, the aide said. The voters are ambivalent.
And so they are -- at least if you're looking at Democrats. Pollster Scott Rasmussen asked an ingenious question that makes the point. Should we be using more military force in Iraq, about the same amount of military force or less military force? The answers may be surprising. A plurality of 39 percent said more military force, 26 percent said the same amount, and only 22 percent said less military force.
Republicans and Democrats, as you might expect, take very different stands -- which provide a good backdrop for assessing Kerry's and George W. Bush's performance in the first presidential debate. Bush voters are overwhelmingly for more force (51 percent) or the current level (37 percent). In other words, when Bush called for using as much force as it takes to prevail, 88 percent of his voters are with him.
Kerry voters, in contrast, are polarized. Some 40 percent say we should be using less force -- presumably, most of these want us out altogether. But 28 percent say they want more military force, with 15 percent saying the same level. If Kerry wants to rally his supporters, he must appeal to both those who want to win and those who want to get out.
Appealing to people with opposite views is difficult. Some of the masters could do it. Faced with two utterly inconsistent proposals, Franklin Roosevelt told his speechwriters, "Weave the two together." He knew how to do it, and so did Bill Clinton. John Kerry, in his Senate speeches, on the campaign trail and in his rare television interviews, has been less artful. In the debate, he did a better job. Boxed in by the Bush campaign debate negotiators to 120-, 90- and 60-second responses, he spoke more pithily than he usually does and in less stilted language. But the result was still ambivalence.
At one point, Kerry said, "The president made a mistake in invading Iraq." Then, asked if the troops in Iraq were dying for a mistake, he said, "No, and they don't have to, provided we have the leadership that ... I'm offering." In his presumably carefully prepared closing statement, he said that "parents of kids in Iraq, you want to know who's the person who could be a commander in chief who could get your kids home and get the job done and win the peace." Then, less than 60 seconds later, he said: "I'm not talking about leaving. I'm talking about winning." Win or get out: take your pick.