Kerry's fateful choice

Posted: Jul 07, 2004 12:00 AM

Good for John Kerry. By picking John Edwards he has given the voters a real choice. The conventional wisdom in Washington held that Kerry would be smart to pick someone who underscored his national security credentials. Picking a Wesley Clark or even a Dick Gephardt would signal that Kerry wasn't going to let the Bush team out-hawk him on the war on terror and foreign policy.

By picking Edwards, Kerry has made it clear that he doesn't think this election should be framed on Bush's terms and that he wants to make a very different case to the American people.

Simply put, if Kerry really thought the war on terror was as big a deal as Bush does, there's no way he would pick John Edwards. Edwards is simply not qualified to be one heartbeat from the presidency in the world George Bush describes. Indeed, during the primaries even Kerry asked his aides about Edwards, "What makes him think he can be president?"

Clearly, Kerry has answered that question to his own satisfaction. And that answer has to be that the war on terror isn't that big a deal. We've had hints to this effect for a while. Several times he's suggested that he considers the war on terrorism a "law enforcement issue." And, in February, Kerry was asked at the Minnesota Democratic debate if he considered himself a "war president" the way Bush does. Kerry responded: "I'd see myself first of all as a jobs president, as a health care president, as an education president and also an environmental president. So I would see myself as a very different kind of global leader than George Bush."

Around that time he also noted that he was much more qualified to be president than John Edwards because "I think that the world is looking for leadership that is tested and sure. And I think that George Bush has proven that this is not a time for inexperience in the White House."

Factor in the relatively miniscule attention Kerry paid to foreign policy when he announced Edwards as his running mate, and you get the sense that Kerry is now committed to the view that Bush is simply making too big a fuss about the war on terror and the need to stick it out in Iraq. The only appearance of the word "terrorism" was a glancing reference to Edwards' collaboration with Kerry on "bioterrorism." And twice Kerry mentioned the need to "build strong alliances" as the central priority of his foreign policy, so "young Americans are never put in harm's way because we insisted on going it alone." Let's leave it to another to ask what Kerry would do if we needed to go it alone to protect all Americans, not just young ones in uniform.

Now, I'm really not being facetious here. Especially in the wake of the mishaps of the Iraq war - no WMD, a wobbly reconstruction only now picking up steam - this country could use a really good debate about foreign policy. John Kerry thinks mending fences with France and the UN is his first foreign policy priority. He thinks "jobs" - whatever the heck that means - and education and the environment and "energy independence" are his job(s) number one.

Kerry's vice presidential pick reinforces all of that. Kerry is the most liberal Senator in the U.S. Senate, according to the respected National Journal, and in 2003 Edwards was the fourth most liberal. Edwards also voted against the $87 billion Iraqi reconstruction bill even though he voted for the war. Clearly, Kerry doesn't want to "balance" his ticket with a moderate, he wants to reinforce it with another liberal who can sell Kerry's message.

Indeed, as my colleague Byron York notes, Edwards' "Two Americas" speech, which earned him so much popularity among the Democratic base and which in turn bought him the nod from Kerry, does not mention terrorism at all. It was a crowd-pleasing speech for a party that wanted the whole issue of foreign policy just to go away. In fact, both Kerry and Edwards constantly appeal to the nostalgia of voters - "let America be America again" is Kerry's motto - for an imagined time when there were no serious challenges in the world, be it the 1990s or John Edward's childhood.

The two Johns believe that America's problems lie in the White House, not overseas. They believe that there's a rich supply of "allies" who would take bullets intended for Americans, if only George Bush had better manners. They believe, despite the fact that George Bush has increased spending on education by 60 percent, and despite the fact that the environment is cleaner now than any time in more than fifty years, that what America really needs more than anything is an education president, an environmental president. Meanwhile, as our enemies lop the heads off our citizens and plan more 9/11s, George Bush says we need a war president. Sounds like the makings of a great debate.