Let's make this simple. John Kerry is the candidate for those who wish we hadn't gone to war in Iraq. But John Kerry can't admit that, even though everyone knows it is true.
Kerry has been at such pains to keep this basic point as fuzzy as possible because an honestly antiwar candidate couldn't win the presidency in 2004. Sometimes he offers arcane explanations containing paragraphs like Rube Goldberg contraptions. Sometimes he speaks in a unique Kerry grammar one could call the future-past perfect. When asked if we were right to invade Iraq, he has responded that it depends on what happens in the future. And other times he's said we were right. And other times he's said we were wrong.
But my favorite response was when he was asked if we'd have gone to war with Iraq if he'd been president, and he shot back confidently, "You bet we might have."
Kerry cannot be honest about the most elemental issue of the election because he will lose the election if he does, and rightly so.
I don't mean to say that a supermajority of Americans think the Iraq war was the right decision in retrospect or that they think Bush has done a wonderful job since Saddam's downfall. But I do think that a supermajority of Americans really do want a president who will err on the side of protecting the American people first and worry about what the New York Times, the French or the United Nations think second. Americans have rarely punished presidents for prosecuting wars too aggressively, they've often punished them for the reverse.
That's the central explanation for Bush's huge advantage over Kerry on the issue of fighting the war on terrorism. It's amazing when you think about it. The media, the United Nations, the French and the Democrats have thrown everything imaginable, fair and unfair, at Bush, and he still leads by double digits on the issue of who's better at fighting the war on terrorism and winning in Iraq.
All of these pro-war pundits and bloggers who've defected to Kerry because of Bush's alleged "incompetence" need to explain why the candidate they now prefer is not the undisputed preference of the American people when it comes to national security. Surely all of these people can't be morons.
The answer, I think, lies in the lessons of 9/11. If you live in a house infested by rats, you may think it's OK to tolerate them for a while. They're just a "nuisance," as John Kerry might say. You might, if you're Bill Clinton, tolerate a series of "minor" rat attacks. But when one of your children dies from a bite, you do everything you can to kill the rats and plug up all the rat holes to protect your family. You don't care which specific rat was responsible for the death. You simply do everything necessary to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. In the post-9/11 world George Bush faced a world with a lot of rat holes. The most obvious, urgent and "doable" rat hole was in Baghdad.
Those who opposed the war insisted there was no link between Saddam and 9/11. There probably wasn't in the sense they meant. But there was an ironclad link in the minds of many of us. In the world ushered in by 9/11, in a world where threats need to be taken seriously and terrorism cannot be seen as a mere nuisance, letting Saddam Hussein - the only world leader to praise the 9/11 attacks - stay in Baghdad simply made no sense.
It would be silly to re-argue the whole war again. But the salient point is that Kerry is the candidate of those who disagree with all that. He's the candidate for those who think America was wrong in Iraq and too gung-ho on the war on terror. Indeed, in a recent New York Times profile, Kerry admitted that 9/11 hadn't changed his thinking about foreign policy "much at all." And that his aim was to return to the way it was in the 1990s, when terrorism was a "nuisance." The problem is that many Americans believe that treating terrorism like a nuisance is precisely why 9/11 happened. For all the talk about Bush's denial, a vote for Kerry is a vote for an even deadlier denial.
Some of this analysis is probably unfair to millions of Americans who have other reasons for voting for Kerry. But who can doubt that if Kerry wins, it will be seen at home and abroad, by friend and foe alike, as a negative referendum on the war on terror in general and on Iraq in particular?
Whatever Bush's faults, the one thing a majority of Americans are confident of is that he wants to win the war on terror in Iraq and around the world, no matter what. About John Kerry they just can't be too sure. That's why I think Bush will win and why I think he should.