How Kerry won

Posted: Oct 05, 2004 12:00 AM

            This column, which could be titled, "Whatever your position on Iraq, John Kerry is your man," is dedicated to Sean, a listener who called my radio show the day after the presidential debate. He enabled me to understand why most people believe John Kerry won the debate.

            Sean explained that he was an opponent of the war in Iraq and only now could he finally vote for John Kerry. I asked him what Kerry said that confirmed that the Democratic candidate was his man.

            Sean: "I believe he has a plan." (Kerry said he has a plan some 12 times.)

            Prager: "A plan to do what?"

            Sean: "A plan to withdraw our troops."

            And then I understood. No matter what position you hold about American foreign policy and the war in Iraq, John Kerry holds your position.

            Sen. Kerry accomplished this so subtly that recognition of it had eluded me.

            Voters who want America to leave Iraq and voters who want to stay there and win -- both heard Kerry say exactly what they wanted to hear.

            Voters who want America to act alone in the world when the world disagrees with us and voters who want America to proceed only when we have the international backing and an alliance with others -- both heard Kerry say exactly what they wanted to hear.

            Voters who believe the war was a colossal mistake and voters who believe that our soldiers in Iraq are fighting for a noble cause -- both heard John Kerry say exactly what they wanted to hear.

            Voters who want to believe that John Kerry has almost magic-like plans -- to get more allies, to leave the war, to win the war, to end the North Korean and Iranian nuclear threats -- heard John Kerry say exactly what they wanted to hear.

            Even voters who share Michael Moore's conspiratorial theories about the war and the Bush presidency heard what they wanted (in Kerry's reference to Haliburton).

            Regarding the war and foreign policy, there is no segment of America that John Kerry did not appeal to.

            Here are direct quotes from John Kerry in the debate.

            On staying in Iraq:

            "I'm not talking about leaving. I'm talking about winning."

            "Yes, we have to be steadfast and resolved, and I am. And I will succeed for those troops, now that we're there. We have to succeed. We can't leave a failed Iraq."

            On leaving Iraq:

            "And our goal in my administration would be to get all of the troops out of there ..."

            "I believe that when you know something's going wrong, you make it right. That's what I learned in Vietnam."

            What was it that John Kerry "learned in Vietnam?" To leave a war he regarded as a mistake.

            On America acting alone:

            "I'll never give a veto to any country over our security."

            On America acting only with world support or within an alliance:

            "But if and when you do it (act alone), Jim, you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test ..."

            And what if acting alone does not pass "the global test"? Then presumably we won't act alone. Kerry made references to the need to be in Iraq in alliance with other nations eight times.

            On the war being a mistake:

            "This president has made, I regret to say, a colossal error of judgment."

            "The president made a mistake in invading Iraq."

            "The war is a mistake."

            On the war being important enough to have to win:

            "I believe that we have to win this. The president and I have always agreed on that."

            After hearing Kerry call the war a mistake, the moderator Jim Lehrer asked the logical question: "Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?

            John Kerry's answer: "No, and they don't have to, providing we have the leadership that I'm offering."

            Now what does that response, arguably the most important thing the senator said in the debate, mean? Does it mean that American soldiers won't die for what John Kerry continually labels a mistake because he will prosecute the war more effectively? Or does it mean that Americans won't die for this mistaken war because he will leave Iraq and then there will be no mistake to die for?

            The answer, again, is that it can mean either.

            I believe that this debate can lead to only one conclusion: Either John Kerry is a man of few principles who will say almost anything on the most vital issues of life and death in order to get elected; or he is personally so confused on this issue that he will repeatedly make self-contradictory statements.

            There is no other explanation for this unassailable fact: John Kerry won the debate because he sounded better; and he sounded better in large measure because he got away with saying whatever any voter wanted to hear.

            That is one reason President Bush looked so annoyed at times. It is very hard for the principled to listen to the unprincipled.