If he is elected president on Nov. 2, will John Kerry find a way to pull American troops out of Iraq? And will he, as the new commander in chief, lead American forces to victory over Islamic terrorists?
If Americans are wondering which man, Sen. Kerry or President Bush, can more surely lead the nation to victory, there was only the beginning of an answer on Thursday might after Kerry’s speech in Boston accepting the Democratic presidential nomination.
Kerry’s speech was, in the best sense of the phrase, provocative, opening doors to further questioning, challenging the listener to think through consequences.
Listeners to his speech could get intuitions and signs pointing in the direction Kerry might take as commander-in-chief.
No presidential candidate in July can prove to voters what he’d do after taking the oath of office in January, but Kerry was at least trying to explain what kind of president he would be.
He would, he pledged to his audience, be a tough-minded, skeptical commander.
“As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence,” he said. “I will immediately reform the intelligence system, so policy is guided by facts, and facts are never distorted by politics.”
By inference, he accused his opponent of deliberately deceiving the nation on the grave question of going to war, an impeachable offense, if true.
“I will be a commander in chief who will never mislead us into war,” he declared.
If Bush had been misleading Americans in the 2002 prelude to the Iraq war, then Kerry, too, was one of those who were misled, not one of the hard-boiled doubters, such as World War II combat veteran Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii or Kerry’s New England neighbor, ex-Army officer Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, who voted “no” on Oct. 11, 2002.
Given the difficulty of now coming up with a “better” Iraq pacification strategy — and the fact that proposing such a strategy would alienate the large percentage of Democrats who think U.S. forces should not be in Iraq at all — it's understandable Kerry would argue that others, those not wearing American uniforms, are the key to solving the problem.
His essential claim: Only he, not Bush, has “the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden” of pacifying Iraq.
Adapting the John Edwards catch-phrase from Wednesday night, Kerry’s argument was essentially that “help is on the way,” and it will be in the form of European and other soldiers.
Kerry made a point of stressing that the 40,000 additional active duty troops he wants for the military would not be deployed to Iraq, but would provide relief to American forces “that are now overstretched, overextended, and under pressure.”
“We need a strong military and we need to lead strong alliances,” Kerry said. “And then, with confidence and determination, we will be able to tell the terrorists: You will lose and we will win.”
That formulation left one wondering, if the United States does not get the support of other nations — whether they are called “allies,” “erstwhile allies” or simply “other” — then is the ultimate victory truly in doubt?
Is it the case that “we will win” if, and only if, French President Jacques Chirac and other leaders agree to join Kerry in fighting al-Qaida or in deploying NATO forces to Iraq?
Based on speeches throughout the week, Democrats in Boston were quite defensive about the perception among voters, a perception found in polling data by Democratic pollster Mark Penn and in the 2002 congressional elections, that the Democrats are less resolute on national defense issues, less willing to use force even when it is necessary.
“Anyone who tells you that one political party has a monopoly on the best defense of our nation is committing a fraud on the American people,” said Gen. Wesley Clark in his warmup speech for Kerry two hours before the nominee himself addressed the delegates.
Kerry's vote in 1991
There is evidence of deep Democratic reluctance to use force: Kerry’s own vote in 1991 against the congressional resolution authorizing President George Bush to use military force to eject Saddam Hussein’s invading armies from Kuwait.
Kerry did not mention that vote in his speech Thursday, and, in fact, made only three quick references in his 55-minute speech to things he had done in the Senate since winning his seat in 1984.
Measured by the speech and by how Kerry has campaigned for the past year, everything he has done since 1984 was less important than what he did between 1966 and 1970.
In the end, Kerry’s speech was most remarkable for its emphasis on national defense. It was a war-time address, by the man bidding for the job of war-time leader, but at head of a party that is profoundly uneasy about that war.
A long-term concern raised by Kerry’s intense emphasis on military matters: Is there any guns-vs.-butter calculation the American people must make if Kerry is elected?
How will America be able to afford bigger, more expensive armed forces, as Kerry promises, while at the same time paying for subsidies for child care for working parents, for example?
A tax hike on high earners
One answer Kerry offered: a tax increase on those making more than $200,000 a year.
Unlike speeches at past conventions, Kerry included no references to traditional Democratic concerns, such as the Roe vs. Wade abortion decision or the future composition of the Supreme Court.
In a crowd-pleasing passage, Kerry did say, “I will appoint an attorney general who actually upholds the Constitution of the United States,” but he supplied no particulars on how John Ashcroft, a man despised by Democrats perhaps more than Bush himself, has done anything unconstitutional or not authorized by the USA Patriot Act, for which Kerry voted.
In the end, since the United States is now at war, the decisive issue will not be Ashcroft, but Bush. The choice voters must make is who leads Americans into the unknown battles ahead.
Kerry tried to make the case that he deserves the vote of those on the home front, because he better than Bush knows the feelings of American soldiers now in the midst of battles abroad.
“I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can't tell friend from foe,” he said, in the most personal appeal for the job of commander in chief.