Return of the San Francisco Democrats

Terry Jeffrey
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Posted: Apr 23, 2003 12:00 AM

It ought to be a maxim of Democratic strategy: Never send your presidential candidate to San Francisco.

Walter Mondale floundered there in 1984. Now it might be Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's turn.

Nineteen years ago, San Francisco hosted the Democratic convention that nominated Mondale. His acceptance speech included a whining plea to replace President Reagan's policy of countering Soviet aggression with a renewed policy of appeasement.

"Every other president talked with the Soviets and negotiated arms control," Mondale told a crowd led by Mario Cuomo and Jesse Jackson. "Why has this administration failed? Why haven't they tried? Why can't they understand the cry of Americans and human beings for sense and sanity in control of these god-awful weapons? Why? Why?"

At the Republican convention in Dallas, U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, a Democratic hawk, gave Mondale what for. "When the Soviet Union walked out of arms control negotiations, and refused even to discuss the issues," said Kirkpatrick, "the San Francisco Democrats didn't blame Soviet intransigence. They blamed the United States. But then, they always blame America first."

"The San Francisco Democrats," she said, " . . . behaved less like a dove or a hawk than like an ostrich -- convinced it could shut out the world by hiding its head in the sand."

Kirkpatrick's imagery stuck: San Francisco Democrats were the Party of Appeasement.

Kerry, the current Democratic frontrunner, had a San Francisco moment just before the war.

A decorated Vietnam veteran, Kerry had earlier adopted optimal positioning for a Democratic nominee. He blamed President Bush for failing to restore a boom economy, but voted to authorize Bush to use force against Iraq.

"By standing with the president," said Kerry, "Congress will demonstrate that our nation is united in its determination to take away Saddam Hussein's deadly arsenal, by peaceful means if we can, by force if we must."

But a room full of San Franciscans was too great a temptation for Kerry.

In a March 13 speech to the Commonwealth Club, he avoided direct discussion of the impending war. But while advocating alternative energy sources, he let loose this applause line: "In the decades to come we should not ever have to have young Americans sent to any part of the world to defend and die for America's gluttony on fossil fuel."

Excuse me? Was Kerry inferring the war he voted for was about oil?

In a question period, the moderator tried to pin him down: Did Kerry regret voting for war?

"What I regret," he said, "is the United States of America, the strongest military power on the face of this planet, has not had diplomacy that matches it. In fact it has had some of the weakest diplomacy that we have ever seen in the history of the conduct of this nation. As I wrote in The New York Times in September, and I maintain it today, and I say this based on my experience in Vietnam and consistent with what I learned there about fighting a war without legitimacy and without the consent of the people: You want consent and you want legitimacy. And that means you must exhaust remedies and build the notion that it is indeed not just a spoken-word last resort, but it is in fact a last resort. The United States of America should never go to war because it wants to go to war, we should go to war because we have to go to war, and that is not clear to people in this country today."

If Kerry is now a San Francisco Democrat, this sounds like the French position.

Kerry's logic: 1) "legitimacy" depended not on the vote he made in Congress, but on the vote France and its allies refused to make in the United Nations, 2) diplomacy failed not because of the intransigence of France and its allies but because the argument that persuaded Kerry himself to vote for war was rightfully deemed unsatisfactory by these foreign powers, and 3) the war was not a "last resort" even though Saddam Hussein refused to disarm peacefully when 250,000 U.S. troops stood at his border.

These arguments might keep Chirac in the Elysee Palace, but they won't return a Democrat to the White House.