The belief that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction was one of the major reasons for going to war. We now know that information was faulty. So the question on everyone's mind this November will be: Was the war in Iraq a failure of intelligence or leadership?
That's a big question. It carries the sort of weight that defines a political party for a generation. Think of the economic angst that Reagan tapped into in 1980; the row of tin pot dictators that Nixon kicked around in 1968; the civil discord that Kennedy tapped into in 1960.
So, how has the Democratic Party responded to the Iraq question? The answer is clear: It hasn't.
That became obvious when John Edwards was selected as Kerry's running mate.
Let's recap. Usually a vice presidential candidate is picked based on his ability to deliver key states (think Lyndon Johnson delivering Texas for Kennedy). It is questionable whether Edwards would have even won his home state of North Carolina, let alone whether he'll deliver it in November.
So why were all the pollsters so adamant that Kerry should select Edwards as his running mate? Clearly, they worry that Kerry can seem a little lackluster at times. So they tapped Edwards to add a populist kick to the ticket. You'll note that Edwards responded with a rousing speech about "two Americas" and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. He said nothing about Iraq. One could argue that this is because the war was a failure of intelligence, rather than leadership. Or, you could argue that Edwards doesn't want to make Iraq a partisan issue, since both he and Kerry had access to the same intelligence information as the president, and both voted in the Senate for the use of force in Iraq. But more to the point, Edwards is a lightweight on foreign policy.
What Edwards does bring to the table is the ability to bond with middle- and lower-class voters. He does this with charm, charisma, and a unyielding dedication to distilling complex political issues into sound bites.
This is not an unimportant skill. The ability to use images to generate mass popularity is among a politician's most important tasks in an electoral democracy. Ever since the great debates between Kennedy and Nixon in 1969, images have supplanted words as the primary way of knowing something about our leaders. Where an hour-long speech was accepted as normal on the stump in the 19th century, today's presidential candidates will deliver an average stump speech in less than 17 minutes. Presidential campaign ads have dropped in length from 30 minutes in 1952 to 30 seconds in 1988. Often, voters are left to judge a politician's worth based as much on image as on the thoughtful exploration of important issues. Or, as Reagan and Bush speechwriter Peggy Noonan opined, "The young people who do speeches for major politicians don't write a serious text with serious arguments, they just write sound bite after sound bite."
From this perspective, it hardly matters that Edwards' track record has only the most dubious relevance to the war on terror. He has charisma. He has demonstrated an ability to ground himself in pop culture. In a democracy, those qualities precede even the issues themselves. That is why his unveiling was not punctuated by serious talk about Iraq. It was about bombarding the public with atmosphere and blow-dried hair. On the eve of an election about issues no less important than war and peace, the Democrats are offering a VP who has dedicated himself to using images to solicit knee-jerk responses from the American public.
Contrast this for a moment with Dick Cheney, a man who has had a lifetime in government. He doesn't need to use images to suggest greatness. It is plainly understood that if Bush died or became incapacitated, Cheney could discharge the presidency with skill and composure. (The Democrats admitted as much when, early on, they attempted to smear Bush by suggesting that Cheney was running the whole show.)
That should provide a sobering comparison for anyone who believes that the election of our politicians should have at least some relevance to the policies they'll be called upon to enact as our leaders.