Liberalism, Kerry's wartime handicap

Posted: May 04, 2004 12:00 AM

John Kerry's persistent problems on the campaign trail should come as no surprise. There were reasons he couldn't get traction even with his own party prior to Howard Dean's implosion, and those reasons remain.

Several articles in the mainstream media over the past few days address Kerry's difficulty in finding a theme that will resonate among voters. A New York Times headline read "Kerry Struggling to Find a Theme, Democrats Fear."

And Newsweek's Howard Fineman wrote, "Beltway wise guys belittle his campaign as a listless and message-less mishmash that has failed to engage a vulnerable incumbent."

It seems odd that a person running for the highest office in the land doesn't have a defining reason for his candidacy, but it's easier to understand when you realize that he wants to be president much more than he cares about advancing a particular policy agenda.

I think Kerry is a lot like Bill Clinton in that respect. I always disagreed with those who said that Clinton wasn't a liberal but an opportunist. Why couldn't he be both? In fact, he was, it's just that his political aspirations always prevailed in the event of a conflict, but he was nevertheless a committed liberal.

There's no doubt that Kerry's a committed liberal, too. He is intrinsically weak on defense and national sovereignty, especially on foreign policy and environmental matters, anemic on traditional values and passionately in favor of redistributing wealth -- except for his own.

But Kerry isn't nearly as shrewd as Clinton and is a far worse actor. When pressed about his inconsistencies, he is much less artful in explaining the inexplicable or justifying the unjustifiable. He has no drama arrows in his quiver remotely approaching Clinton's lower-lip bite. Instead, when he's trapped, he's exposed as a man deeply uncomfortable in his own skin.

Unlike Clinton, Kerry isn't convincing as anything other than the liberal he is. So when he pretends to be to the right of George Bush on national security, it's laughable. But he has to try something, because during wartime at least, liberalism just doesn't play well among the majority of Americans, despite talk of the nation being evenly divided.

So the answer to the question raised by various tone-deaf liberal publications is that Kerry is struggling to find a theme because the positions he's comfortable with simply won't work in America right now. It's no accident, then, that Kerry is flailing around for coherence, one day armed with the machismo of a war hero and the next back to his Jane Fondaesque roots.

Indeed, perhaps we should view his paradoxical beginning as both a war hero and war protester as a foreshadowing of his future political career. One day he was working on behalf of our troops in Vietnam, and the next working against them. And now one day he supports our troops in Iraq, and the next day he cuts their legs out from under them.

There is a potential silver lining for Kerry. If things get much worse in Iraq, he'll be able to revert to his antiwar propensities, where he'll once again be comfortable in his skin. But until that time he will have to continue vacillating and straddling the fence, thus the endless flip-flopping.

We saw this again recently when Kerry even began to hedge his bets on WMD. "We may yet find them," Kerry told "Hardball's" Chris Matthews. How does Mr. Kerry plan on reconciling that admission with his party's overt accusation that President Bush lied about WMD?

This really highlights Kerry's dilemma. As long as there is ambiguous news coming out of Iraq making it unsafe for Kerry to commit to a position, we can expect more ambivalence, confusion and double-talk emanating from his campaign.

If all else fails, he can return to the mindless hate-Bush theme that brought him to the dance when he inherited the baton from the falling Howard Dean. That will certainly solidify his base, but it will also ensure his defeat in the general election.

Unfortunately for Senator Kerry, most voters just don't believe that President Bush is contemptible. Recent polls reveal that he's more "likable, compassionate and compatible with the voters" than Kerry.

Even more problematic for Kerry is that his inconsistencies make him appear remarkably indecisive and unreliable -- two essential attributes for leadership, especially in wartime.

The result of all this is that Kerry probably can't win the election on his own. In all likelihood he will only become president if things go way south in our war effort. I shudder at the prospect of either of those events.