Kerry has a war record - Bush has ideas

Posted: Sep 22, 2004 12:00 AM

John Kerry gave what his fans and his critics say was his best speech on Iraq and foreign policy so far. Basically, Kerry has decided that the Iraq war is a Vietnam-like mistake, that the "world," not America, should fix Iraq, and that America should get out, fast. Of course, this is basically an expanded version of one of his recent anti-war stances. And now that I've read Kerry's first, best and allegedly last iteration of his views on Iraq and the War on Terrorism, I've come to one obvious conclusion: The Democrats should have nominated Wesley Clark

Truth be told, I was never a big fan of the guy. But if the Clark everyone expected to run had actually run, Bush would be in huge trouble right now. Recall that before Clark got into the primaries he was generally perceived to be a moderate, Southern New Democrat and something of a hawk on foreign policy. When he ran the Kosovo war - which was not authorized by the UN, not aimed at WMDs, not part of the war on terrorism - he was always pushing for a more aggressive approach. As late as 2002 Clark was toasting the Bush team at a Republican fundraiser and he even admitted that he'd voted for Reagan and might have become an active Republican if only the White House had returned his phone calls.

The problem for Clark was that he didn't run as Clark. He ran as a Howard Dean with a mothballed General's uniform. That's why, at the time, I kept referring to him as the "Johnny Bravo" candidate. This was a reference to the "Brady Bunch" episode in which some slick music promoters asked Greg Brady to be a new rock star, "Johnny Bravo." Greg thought they liked him for his talent, when all they really wanted was someone who looked good in the costume. Democratic insiders - starting with Bill Clinton himself - kept insisting that a Democratic candidate with Wesley Clark's credibility on defense would crush the Republicans because American voters favor Democrats on domestic issues by a wide margin.

But the Democrats failed to grasp that the Republicans had won the foreign policy debate not because they offered better props and costumes. They won it because they had better ideas. Ever since Reagan, the Democrats have attributed the GOP's advantage on foreign policy to flag-waving, gauzy commercials and cheap appeals to patriotism. Conservatives couldn't possibly be right on the merits! It had to be some trick concocted by Mike Deaver, Lee Atwater or Karl Rove. What the Democrats seemed not to notice was that none of the winning Republican candidates, with the exception of G.H.W. Bush, were war heroes. Bob Dole, who was one, got trounced - and so did the first President Bush in 1992.

So the Democrats figured a Wesley Clark candidacy would be the perfect combination: appealing Democratic ideas married to a shiny uniform and military record. The problem was that Clark was an awful candidate, fundamentally dishonest in his pose as a dovish liberal (I think he probably is one now). If Clark had run and won the nomination as the man he was supposed to have been, he would now be able to claim that he is better qualified to get the job done in Iraq.

But the Democrats nominated John Kerry instead. And since the liberal senator had run successfully in Massachusetts as a self-proclaimed war hero in the past, and because his Vietnam ads worked for him in the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, his handlers figured they could follow the same strategy against Bush. (Actually, exit polls showed that most Democrats didn't like Kerry so much as they thought his military record made him the most electable candidate.) That's why the Kerry campaign spent months insisting that his service in Vietnam made him more qualified to be commander-in-chief than George W. Bush. Kerry made his convention debut a "This is Your Life" replay of his Vietnam service, ending the story at the point when he became an actual senator.

Indeed, Kerry's 20 years of experience in foreign policy were deemed irrelevant. Why? Because Democrats have adopted the dark strategy they erroneously ascribe to Republicans. They believe that a bunch of bunting, gimmicks and vicious assaults on their opponent's patriotism can substitute for ideas. John Kerry and his henchman have explicitly questioned the patriotism of President Bush, Dick Cheney, John Ashcroft et al. more often and more flagrantly than any Republican campaign has ever done in modern American politics. They've even used the words "unpatriotic" and "un-American" on more occasions than can be recounted here. They've mounted a silly assault on Bush's military record even though Bush, unlike Kerry, never offered his military service in the National Guard as a rationale for his presidency.

Meanwhile, President Bush has laid out serious ideas about where he wants to go and why. There's plenty of room for decent criticism of his ideas, but at least they're ideas.

The good news is that Kerry is finally offering some ideas. The bad news - for him - is that they're the wrong ones. But hey, at least they're ideas.