Friday, March 19, 2004

Kerry's Big Chance A rare CONTRAPOSITIVE thought about the Iraq war. Or, at least, the war's ramifications for the current debate:

During the run-up to the Democratic primaries, Howard Dean--the front-runner for what seems, in retrospect, like 80-90% of the process--had an incentive to conflate two distinct issues:

1) Whether it ever makes sense to mount the kind of agressive, pre-emptive invasion of which the Iraq war was an example.

2) Whether it made sense to attack Iraq specifically in the manner (and context) in which the Bush administration chose to attack it.

It was in Dean's interest to conflate these issues because he was looking to maintain the support of his fervently anti-war base without turning off voters who, while not pacifists, were fervently anti-this-war. (Together, those two groups added up to a majority of Democrats.)

And while all the blurring didn't serve Kerry or Edwards, teasing the issues apart would have meant, for them, spending more time discussing their Iraq votes--which was the last thing they wanted to do. So they let Dean's framing of the debate on Iraq go more or less unchallenged.

Flash forward to today.

Kerry's opponents--now Republicans--have inherited Dean's Iraq frame, and given it a bit of a twist. For Dick Cheney et. al., you can be a critic of the Iraq war or you can be a supporter of the war on terrorism. But you can't be both.

This is ludicrous, but it's the argument that's being made.

So it's now very much in Kerry's interest to emphasize the distinction Dean worked so hard to obscure--to argue that in a post-9/11 world, it may be important to "take the fight to our enemies," but that Iraq was the wrong enemy, fought in the wrong way at the wrong time.

(This isn't, um, exactly the cast Kerry put on the issue during the primary campaign. But it's an argument, as the Democratic nominee, he's in a position to make.)

Moreover, while the nation remains divided about the Iraq war, voters still favor Bush by wide margins on foreign policy and security issues. So making this kind of hawkish case ought to have the virtue of enhancing Kerry's terror-fighting credentials as well.

The question is, why isn't Kerry making it? Or, as Kevin Drum muses:

John Kerry, I think, is probably every bit as anti-terror as Bush, but like most Democrats he seems too afraid of sounding jingoistic to really make a full-throated "terrorists are bastards and we will never surrender to them" speech. Why is that?

Kerry's failure to take a louder, tougher stand on issues relating to terrorism and national security is especially puzzling given the willingness of a fence-sitter like Andrew Sullivan to point out:

Wouldn't [Kerry] be obliged to continue Bush's policies in Iraq and Afghanistan and even, as he has already promised, actually increase troop levels in those countries? I don't think it's out of the question. John McCain knows Kerry and says he doesn't believe he'd be "weak on defense." Sometimes, a Democrat has to be tougher than a Republican in this area--if only to credentialize himself. I can certainly conceive of Richard Holbrooke being a tougher secretary of state than Colin Powell.

So would Kerry be as tough as Bush? Of course he would. Looking forward, there isn't a single terrorism-related issue where Kerry has taken what can fairly be called a "softer" line than Bush.

So why aren't Kerry's people making the kind of case Sullivan is making?

Or, to put it differently, why are they spending time talking about the importance of intelligence, port security and paying members of the armed forces a living wage when everyone already knows where a Democratic nominee is going to be on these issues?

I genuinely don't know.

But it seems to me that the way to make news--and the win the attention of undecided voters--would be to challenge the Bush administration directly on its weaknesses in the war on terrorism. To say that a Kerry administration would be prepared to send 150,000 troops to Afghanistan; to announce a new get-tough approach with Saudi Arabia and Yemen and Syria; to focus attention on the Administration's ineptitude in its handling of North Korea and Iran.

What could Kerry possibly lose by making this argument?

And if Kerry managed to throw some blustery language into the mix...well, that wouldn't be terrible either.

Now maybe Kerry's people have thought of all this. Maybe they're biding they're time, and they don't want to put their cards on the table too early.

I certainly hope so.

Still, delay is dangerous--especially with Bush's huge financial advantage. At this moment, the Kerry camp has a real opening. Let's hope they don't squander it.

CONTRAPOSITIVE is edited by Dan Aibel. Dan's a playwright. He lives in New York City.