2004 is a war election

Posted: Feb 06, 2004 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- With John Kerry as their presumptive candidate, the Democrats may have won the war issue.

True, Bush will make the case that his post-9/11 policies are infinitely tougher. And Kerry certainly has given him an opening, saying that the war on terror is ``primarily an intelligence and law enforcement operation.''

This is a hopelessly retrograde invocation of the antiterrorism policies that brought us 9/11 -- finding, arresting, and putting on trial individual miscreants, as we did the World Trade Center bombers of 1993 -- but it does not matter. War is more a visceral than an intellectual issue. Kerry holds the trump card. He's fought in battle. And acted heroically.

Kerry is where he is today not because of his message, or his new-found populism, or his newly relaxed face, but because the same week Howard Dean angrily told a questioner/heckler, ``You've had your say. And now I'm going to have my say,'' John Kerry welcomed onto his stage in Iowa a tearful war buddy for their first reunion since Kerry saved his life 30 years ago in Vietnam.

End of contest.

However much Democrats want to deny it -- and insist on talking about health care and budgets and tax cuts -- this is a war election, our first war election in more than a decade. Ironically, they may win because of it.

For 2 1/2 years it looked as if the political beneficiary of 9/11 was President Bush. But Bush, never a believer in hoarding political capital, spent his post-9/11 and post-Afghanistan popularity on Iraq. The big political beneficiary of 9/11 turns out to be Kerry.

Sept. 11 changed the rules of presidential electoral politics. Or, more accurately, it returned us to an earlier set of rules that prevailed in Cold War days. Every single president elected during the Cold War had served in some capacity in the military.

It is no accident that Bill Clinton, who never served, was the first post-Cold War president. It is no accident that Bob Dole, who ran in the second post-Cold War presidential election, got absolutely no political traction out of his background as genuine war hero. During the end-of-history '90s, military service seemed an irrelevance.

Sept. 11 reminded us that the `90s were an anomaly. And upon returning to a world of mortal conflict with people who really want you destroyed, you instinctively want someone not new to the idea of war.

There is far more instinct than logic at play here. After all, the two greatest wartime presidents in American history were Lincoln, who served at most four months in the Illinois militia, and FDR, who served not at all. Moreover, there are a lot of impressive warriors you would not want near the presidency. Douglas MacArthur for one. Wesley Clark for another.

Yet that instinct is common for democracies at war. Take Israel, at war for the entire 55 years of its existence.

Israel has a habit of electing generals and war heroes. In the 1999 election, that habit went over the top: The two contenders for prime minister were ex-commandos who had participated in the same stunning operation -- in 1972, Ehud Barak, Benjamin Netanyahu and 14 colleagues shot their way onto a Sabena airliner hijacked into Tel Aviv, killed two terrorists and freed the passengers. No terrorist ever hijacked a plane into Israel again.

In that 1999 election campaign, Barak's advertising used a photograph of his younger self standing on the wing of the jetliner dressed in the mechanic's clothes with which he and the others had disguised themselves. Netanyahu likes to joke that Barak got the picture, but ``I was the guy who got shot in the arm.''

On the other hand, the biggest loser in the history of Israeli politics -- he lost four races for prime minister -- is Shimon Peres, who was a brilliant aide to David Ben-Gurion and helped create Israel's nuclear deterrent, but never saw combat. And every Israeli knows it.

That doesn't mean that Barak was a better steward of national security than Peres. It only means that electorates put a high value on wartime service for would-be wartime leaders.

The reason is deeply visceral. It is not just that you think a veteran -- or, even better, a hero -- has a better understanding of war, its strategy and its costs. It is that when the bad guys are after you -- say, after they kill 3,000 of your countrymen in one day -- you like the idea of a national leader who has no compunction about killing.

Kerry makes the point with extra emphasis by noting that he hunts. And plays hockey. Post-9/11, that's the kind of guy even Democrats want wearing the sheriff's badge.