The recent attacks by Congressman Richard Gephardt against fellow Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean underscore how difficult a position Democrats are in going into the 2004 election.
All of these hapless Democratic presidential hopefuls want to run because they want to be president, not because they believe they have a superior vision, at least where the War on Terror is concerned. But they're all scampering around in search of a foreign policy message that will resonate -- something, anything that will give the voters a solitary reason to switch horses in the middle of this stream of war.
John Kerry reminds us every other day of his military experience, as if that alone is supposed to negate his dangerous appeasement-oriented foreign policy outlook and his softness on terrorism. Senator Edwards, like Kerry and most of the others, mouths platitudes about the president's "unilateralism" or his alleged exaggerations about WMD. But none of these candidates offers any real alternative to President Bush's prosecution of the war. Their criticisms are smoke and mirrors, and aren't even being taken seriously.
Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt face a similar problem from a different position. They supported the war, so despite their artificial complaints, have nothing to distinguish themselves from President Bush either.
Only Howard Dean, among the serious candidates, purports to be anti-war, though lately he's backing away ever so slightly from that position, which would be political suicide in the general election. He has exploited this issue all the way to the top of the anti-Bush, anti-war hill of his party faithful. He hasn't even had to appear stable. The more indignant his demeanor, the more appealing to his grass-roots malcontents.
This Dean thing is just killing the other Democrat candidates. How dare this outsider be the front-runner when he has utterly no credibility on the one issue that will probably matter most in 2004? The Democrats are so rattled by Dean's success that they've started airing ads challenging his war credentials.
The TV ad has been aired over and over in the pivotal primary states of Iowa and New Hampshire. The unmistakable message is that the American public cannot trust Howard Dean with their lives.
In the ad, the image of Osama bin Laden appears and the haunting announcer states that the American people "want a president who can face the dangers ahead. … But Howard Dean has no military or foreign policy experience. And Howard Dean just cannot compete with George Bush on foreign policy."
Here the Democrats are virtually conceding that foreign policy is the main issue and that their main candidate is inferior to the president concerning it. What they don't say is that all of their candidates are equally inferior.
And they're wrong about why Dean (and they) can't compete. It's not because he doesn't have foreign policy experience. Neither did President Bush before he became president. And it's not because he has no military experience. George Bush's foreign policy prowess and his proficiencies as commander in chief have nothing to do with his military experience.
What makes President Bush the best wartime leader are his moral clarity, his decisiveness, his willingness to confront evil in the world, and his determination to place America's security and the American people's safety above his political interests. Try as they might, bluster as they will, none of the Democrats has a chance of convincing the voters they are better equipped in this department.
Though Congressman Gephardt denies being behind the ad, it was reportedly financed at least partially by the labor unions that so strongly support him. The group sponsoring the ads is "Americans for Jobs, Health Care and Progressive Values." The group's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, stood by the ad, saying, "The discussion about foreign policy experience is one that we need to be conducting now, before we get any further into the campaign. That was the ad's intent, and that was accomplished."
While that may be true, it's a risky gambit for the anti-Dean Democrats, who by airing it reveal their desperation. This message plays right into President Bush's hands, because it's an overt admission that national security is the pivotal issue and that President Bush is an able guardian over it.
Absent another calamity -- God forbid -- or a scandal against George Bush (the makings of which exist only in the minds of these Democrats), the Democrats are going to have a very difficult time.