Yes, it’s the political silly season, when media experts hyperventilate over oddly assorted, often trivial controversies (George Allen’s “Macaca”-gate; the allegedly racist Harold-Ford-at-the-Playboy-Party ad; Rush Limbaugh’s “insensitive” mockery of Michael J. Fox) that loom large in the run-up to a major election but stand little chance of qualifying for long term historical significance. The explosive dispute over John Kerry’s dismissive, insulting comments about our troops in Iraq may, however, constitute an important exception and could mark a notable turning point in the vicious, decades-long battle between Democratic and Republican image-makers.
For several reasons, Kerry’s crack matters. Those reasons are:
1. He clearly meant it.
The day after his breathtakingly clumsy remarks at Pasadena City College suggesting that the uneducated and unsuccessful got “stuck in Iraq,” he made a laughable attempt to clarify his sentiments by insisting he meant to insult President Bush, not the troops in the field. Unfortunately for Mr. Kerry, videotape captured his actual observations (“You know, education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, you try to be smart, you can do well. And if you don’t you get stuck in Iraq.”) and so did many eye-witnesses. One of those reporters on the scene, Cortney Fielding of the Whittier Daily News, described the Senator’s statement and the context in which it appeared: “Kerry charmed the crowd with tales of surfing at Mission Beach and got laughs for a series of one liners, including telling the crowd he had just returned from Texas, ‘Where the president used to live –now he lives in a state of denial.’ Kerry then told the students that if they were able to navigate the education system, they could get comfortable jobs – “if you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq,’ he said to a mixture of laughter and gasps.” If Kerry had meant his comments as another jab at Bush, why the gasps? And why not any attempt to explain his lame attempt at humor on the spot by adding, for instance, words that specified, “and a prime example of somebody who didn’t do his homework, and didn’t try to be smart, and who didn’t do well, is George W. Bush…. “or some comments to that effect. The actual tape shows Kerry delivering his fateful (and perhaps politically fatal) remarks, getting the decidedly mixed response, and then racing on without hesitation to fulsome praise of his Senatorial colleagues, Boxer and Feinstein. If the context of his words about getting “stuck in Iraq” had in any way exonerated him from the charge of insulting the troops then why, even twenty hours after the event, had his handlers failed to call press attention to the full tape (which most of America still hadn’t seen, as of this writing)? Only the blindest partisan could fail to acknowledge the Senator’s intent to portray the U.S. forces “stuck in Iraq” as pitiable losers, while he tried to encourage his student audience to avoid their fate by concentrating on educational success.
2. Kerry’s Comments Highlighted the Democrats’ Longstanding (and uncomfortable) Position on the Wrong Side of the Nation’s Key Cultural Divides.
Despite their flamboyant efforts to masquerade as Church-going, duck-hunting, gun-loving, flag-waving, NASCAR fans, the leaders of the Democratic Party clearly feel more at home with the values of San Francisco or Nantucket than with the down-home mores of Biloxi or Boise. In June, an important Gallup Poll asked respondents to rate 15 institutions in terms of “public confidence.” The military came out on top, followed by police and then preachers. As the survey reported: “At different times in the past, banks, the presidency, the Supreme Court, newspapers and public schools have commanded a high degree of confidence from at least half of Americans. However, this year the top tier group is limited to the military, the police, and church or organized religion.” The key GOP advantage in this political campaign (and all other battles in the near future) involves the accurate, unshakable public perception that Republicans display far more genuine and consistent support than their opponents when it comes to the three institutions that Americans embrace most enthusiastically. How can Democrats pose as “friends of the police” when they regularly endorse the agenda of the ACLU, and show more concern over police brutality and the rights of the accused than for aggressive, effective law enforcement (energetic interrogation – or wiretapping –anyone?). When it comes to religious institutions, liberals not only split with most believers on big issues like abortion and the defense of traditional marriage, but also warn of the dangers of “theocracy” when their opponents promote even the most innocuous displays of religious symbols.
It’s no surprise that weekly church-goers generally favor Republicans over Democrats by margins of nearly two to one. It’s also long-accepted that military families tilt overwhelmingly toward the GOP, despite Kerry’s ostentatious and incessant references to his own time in the service more than 35 years ago. During the current controversy, his initial statement responding to White House demands for an apology declared: “If anyone thinks a veteran would criticize the more than 140,000 heroes serving in Iraq and not the president who got us stuck there, they’re crazy.” But insanity isn’t required to note that at least one celebrated veteran, Kerry, has compiled a long history of criticizing our “heroes” in shockingly intemperate terms– beginning with his celebrated (and slanderous) claims to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that our forces in Vietnam committed widespread atrocities on a daily basis. Just a few months ago, the Massachusetts Senator slammed members of the US military in Baghdad for “terrorizing innocent Iraqis” in their homes. Despite the assumptions of Kerry and company, military personnel aren’t stupid: in fact, recently released Defense Department figures show that 2005 recruits are more intelligent, better off financially and, yes, more educated than their counterparts in the public at large. These willing warriors in an all-volunteer military understand that the loud-mouthed lunatics who want to cut back on our defense budget, see American power as a threat to world peace, and regularly deride our troops as baby killers, all find their natural political home in the Democratic Party.
Most people understand the difference between pity and respect. You may well feel sorry for the drunk collapsed on the street corner but you don’t, in any meaningful sense, respect his current condition. You probably look on a nursing infant with tenderness and affection but given his helpless, utterly dependent state you don’t view him as an equal. In similar terms, the Democrats who claim to care only about the less fortunate among us, who insist that they speak for the struggling victims suffering from cruel capitalist excesses, view these masses as helpless, unlucky, unintelligent and, ultimately, pathetic. On my radio show today I spoke with a caller from Santa Monica, California, who defended Kerry’s comments and noted that in his opinion the military option represented a “last resort” for unfortunates with no other options in life. To show his sympathy for the young soldiers, the caller said he sent “care packages” to the troops in Iraq. I noted in response that he might also send care packages to starving villagers in Africa, since the gesture suggested he felt sorry for our soldiers rather than inspired by their example. The consistent theme of Democratic propaganda is pity for the purportedly helpless and hopeless, including the middle class as well as the poor, all of whom can’t succeed or even survive without the efforts of liberal activists and the government programs they promote. If the Dems insist that ordinary citizens can’t succeed without government help, and the GOP emphasizes that hard work and decency still bring the American dream if bureaucrats and do-gooders stay out of the way, which side demonstrates the greater respect for the ability and potential of American strivers?
Despite their pose as “the party of the little guy,” the dominant Democrats are patronizing elitists who were born to privilege – people like Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, Ted Kennedy, Nancy Pelosi and, yes, John Kerry. As a matter of fact, the very phrase “little guy” or “little people” is obviously condescending. The people who volunteer for our armed services aren’t little in any sense: they’re big and self-reliant and proud and powerful and determined, and rightly annoyed by Kerry’s demeaning but revealing attitude. Predictably, major veterans’ organizations (including the American Legion) have demanded his apology.
The Kerry comments demonstrate the hollowness in Democratic insistence that “we support the troops.” If you believe that the difficult mission to which they’ve devoted their lives represents a war crime and a catastrophe; if you suggest that they’ve been snookered- or forced -into a meaningless, perhaps genocidal errand based on lies and greed and neo-con manipulation; if you see the soldiers on the ground (and in the air and on the sea) as hapless, helpless pawns in some monstrous oil-company conspiracy, then in what significant sense do you support these poor, abused troops?
They see themselves as part of history’s most formidable fighting force – as self-reliant adults capable of following the Marine motto (“improvise, adapt and overcome”) for the sake of an important mission that history will judge generously. Which side in the current debate about the war – Republicans or Democrats—comes closest to expressing the soldiers’ conception of themselves? The margin for Republican candidates among military voters (which regularly approaches three-to-one) provides the most direct answer to that question. The Kerry controversy represents a significant event because it highlights the contrast in GOP and Democratic attitudes with unexpected clarity.
And that brings up the most perplexing question regarding the whole sad affair: why did an experienced politician like John Kerry allow the situation to spin so far out of control without issuing the simple retraction and apology that could have put a quick end to it? Kerry might have responded to the first hint of criticism by announcing, “I obviously misspoke. I meant no disrespect to our troops, but no one was more horrified or appalled at the clumsy and awkward way my words came out than I was. I apologize for any offense caused by my ill-considered statement, since I’ve always meant to support – not insult – my brothers and sisters in uniform.” Instead of that sort of controversy-calmingapproach, Kerry chose to fire back in wildly overwrought, intemperate tones at “assorted right wing nut jobs” and “despicable Republican attacks that always seem to come from those who never can be found to serve in war, but love to attack those who did.”
Kerry can’t believe that keeping the dispute alive will actually assist his fellow Democrats on November 7, but it might well enhance the Senator’s own position among rabid activists within the party. It’s easy to imagine the failed Presidential candidate huddled with his advisors on his plane to Seattle, resolving that this time they won’t allow themselves to be “swift-boated” and will shoot back with all partisan barrels blazing. If nothing else, the red-meat rhetoric about feeling “disgusted” at “Republican hacks who have never worn the uniform of our country” might stir the pulse of the party’s perpetually outraged base that views Bush and Rumsfeld (who both did wear the uniform, by the way) and Cheney and Tony Snow as personifications of pure evil. Kerry’s only hope at winning another nomination over Hillary Clinton and, perhaps, Barack Obama is to run to their left --- so he hopes that the George Soros wing on the party will remember his stalwart stridency on this issue, even if it costs Democrats the Congress.
In this context, it’s possible that the current episode will emerge as more than a passing diversion in the midst of intensifying hysteria that inevitably precedes a crucial election. If nothing else, Kerry’s initial gaffe and his subsequent refusal to retreat or readjust demonstrates the Democratic difficulty of accommodating the passions of Moveon.org and CodePink at the same time they attempt to reach out to the American mainstream.