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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Don’t Go There

The GOP strategy for responding to John Kerry’s sharp and forceful critique of administration policy in Iraq is pretty clear by now: (1) it’s another Kerry flip-flop; he’s now decided to condemn the train of events that inevitably flowed from his vote for a use-of-force resolution back in 2002; and (2) Kerry has now joined the anti-war forces that opposed any action against Saddam Hussein, and cannot be trusted to use military force in future threats to our security. In other words, their argument is that John Kerry has morphed into Howard Dean, if not Michael Moore.
This argument is hardly surprising, given BC04’s determination to wrap Iraq into the war on terror, and everything that’s happened in Iraq into the response to 9/11. It’s a simple and seductive pitch, given all the confusing events of the last three years: you’re either with Bush in resolutely using force against all these crazy Arabs, or you’re not.
Unfortunately, this dynamic creates a strong temptation for anti-war Democrats to help make that very case. The best example is today’s column by NYT’s Maureen Dowd, who complains that Kerry’s still talking about how Bush dealt with Saddam, instead of simply condemning the very idea of the war. “When Mr. Kerry says it was the way the president went about challenging Saddam that was wrong, rather than the fact that he challenged Saddam, he’s sidestepping the central moral issue…. It wasn’t the way W. did it. It was what he did. ”
In effect, speaking for those Democrats who were “right from the beginning” on Iraq, Dowd’s demanding that Kerry bend the knee and explicitly say: “I was wrong. You were right.”
Most anti-war Democrats aren’t, so far as I can tell, following Dowd’s lead, though some probably hope Kerry will explicitly concede their case. If so, they would be well advised to keep that thought to themselves, for four very good reasons:
(1) A retroactive debate on the use-of-force resolution is inevitably an exercise in extremely hypothetical speculation. Kerry’s said throughout the campaign he would have done everything differently with respect to Iraq. And that’s undoubtedly true. But there’s no way to know what, exactly, an administration less blinded by ideology, less arrogant in its ignorance, less hostile to traditional alliances and international institutions, and less hell-bent on war might have ultimately done about Saddam. Perhaps a Kerry (or Gore) administration would have found a way to rally the U.N. into a determination to enforce its own long series of resolutions demanding Iraqi compliance with the conditions imposed on it after the Gulf War, and convinced Saddam Hussein to abandon his insane effort to avoid verification of his non-existent WMD program. Perhaps a different president would have ultimately used force, but with far more international support and less “collateral damage” in Iraq, and across the Muslim world. We don’t, and can’t know. That’s why we don’t, and can’t know whether there was any viable option to the authoriztion of force in 2002.
(2) The case against Bush’s Iraq policies in no way depends on accepting the premise that the whole idea of confronting Saddam was a mistake. There are plenty of Democrats, independents, and even Republicans who supported the decision to confront and attack Saddam who think the administration’s policies since then are a rolling ball of madness. Nothing in Michael Moore’s multimedia assault on Bush’s Iraq policies can compare in vivid argument and righteous indignation with the latest editorial of the strongly pro-war New Republic. Lord knows the DLC has heaped abuse on Bush for the same reasons. And the recent statements by Republican senators–all of them strong supporters of the decision to topple Saddam–about the fantasy land of administration claims of steady progress on Iraq are the most compelling arguments of all. Must all of these Bush critics–including Kerry’s running mate, his top foreign policy advisors, the embattled Senate Democratic leader, and most Democratic candidates in competitive races all over the country–be forced to say there were actually no circumstances in which the use of force against Saddam might be justified? The question answers itself.
(3) The public consistently rejects an all-or-nothing choice about Iraq. As documented in another lucid post by John Belisarius on Ruy Teixeira’s Donkey Rising blog, a consistent majority of Americans support the decision to invade Iraq as “the right decision,” and also deplore the results as “a mistake.” Sounds like the high ground is one that deplores the mistaken results, while at least being open to the belief that the decision to invade was if not “right,” then defensible.
(4) Democrats simply don’t get cut much slack on national security. As Al From often says, the question voters have about Republican candidates is: “Do they have the compassion to care?” The question voters have about Democratic candidates is: “Do they have the toughness to govern?” After 9/11, the second question is crucial. There is absolutely nothing about John Kerry’s biography, record, or agenda that suggests he’s not tough enough to govern, or tough enough to defend his country, though the GOP has tried mightily to distort his biography, record and agenda to suggest otherwise. The one thing that would clinch the argument for BC04 is pressure from Democrats to undermine Kerry’s repeated pledge that he will never hesitate to use military force to defend his country and its interests.
So: anti-war Democrats would be wise to let Kerry be Kerry, and not demand that he become somebody else. Democrats can and will disagree about who was right and who was wrong in the use-of-force resolution two years ago. But they agree about where we are now, where Bush’s policies have taken us, and where each candidate is likely to go in the next four years. They should stay focused on the here and now, and softly chant to themselves, don’t go there, when the incumbent tries to return the debate to decisions made before his incompetent stewardship of both Iraq and the war on terror became obvious.

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