Allow me to diverge for a moment from the press’s congratulatory orgy over John Kerry’s debate performance. Those of us who look for more than mere gaffes and atmospherics recognize that, to gain our true confidence rather than tentative votes, John Kerry needed to convince voters he would see Iraq succeed and crush Al Qaeda. He failed.
Kerry can only change the dynamic of the race by waking people up to the stunning reality of Bush’s failed leadership, AND doing it in such a way that offers us his own strong and steady hand and a competent leader. For that to happen, Kerry had to not only attack Bush, but his every statement needed to connect to underlying principles and values that the public would be stunned to learn Bush apparently doesn’t share. Diverting resources from catching bin Laden to go after Saddam Hussein? Check. Opposing the creation of a Department of Homeland Security? Missed opportunity. Opposing the creation of the 9/11 commission? Missed. Ignoring newly revealed pre-invasion warnings that Iraq could turn into a guerilla war? Missed. Protecting Saudi Arabia even though it’s home to 15 of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers? Missed.
I kept wanting Kerry to lean forward a bit more, to jab his finger in my direction, to act and talk like a man who was ready to lead the United States in war. I wanted him to talk about how the United States of America doesn’t retreat, but shockingly, that’s exactly what Bush did in Iraq once the militants started flooding in — backed down and let the terrorists push us out of entire cities like Fallujah and Samarrah, and allowed thugs like Zarqawi to set up terrorist mini-states in places. Placated and nice with radicals like Muqtada al Sadr who repeatedly attacked U.S. forces.
Kerry could have run both to Bush’s left and right. That is, he could have driven home his Osama-over-Saddam message, but also shown that he was ultra-committed to smashing the terorrists in Iraq so that the U.S. would succeed. It’s that simple: Kerry = Smash the terrorists in Fallujah so we can get back to get back to killing bin Laden. Bush = Iraq is America’s new West Bank.
Instead what we got was, in the words of the hilariously shrill Zell Miller, a “bowl of mush.” From the former prosecutor, lots of middling over details and scattershot accusations, without a continued focus on the big-picture indictment to tie it all together. Kerry seemed to be running for U.N. Secretary-General, auditioning for chief facilitator of some international circle-jerk. I can see the Bush ads now: “Kerry now says the answer to dealing with Saddam Hussein was to get another U.N. resolution. And now he says his plan to win the war on terror is to hold a summit! A summit?”
Hey, Kerry: Fuck that summit, those resolutions, and that “global test,” whatever that meant. Same for the bizarre alarm about American nuclear weapons that “we might actually use.” Stop playing dove. Run as an American patriot whose tired of seeing America’s reputation sullied, and our soldiers let down by an incompetent chief executive whose battlefield reality check has cost us lives. Remind people that over the next four years there will be other crises, other crucial choices, and that a president who refuses to admit his mistakes and adjust to the reality of current events is doomed to repeat them.
Tonight, John Kerry had the chance to present the alternative vision that was once within our grasp: a willing world, post-9/11, on the march against terror behind the steady and respected leadership of the United States of America. He needed to bring home the magnitude of how that profound opportunity has been lost under George W. Bush. Instead, he lost his focus, playing along while Bush peered at his cliff notes and conflated Iraq with the war against al Qaeda. Maybe he remained “poised” and “presidential,” but he was anything but inspiring and left the distinct impression that Iraq under a Kerry administration would remain in flames.
I don’t care much if the floodgates open tomorrow and voters stampede toward John Kerry. He failed.
Taking your tack probably would have backfired, for it would have put Bush in a position to point out why a lot of your charges against him are terribly overstated–and he could make a pretty good case that they are (or I could, anyway, on pretty much every point; most of that comes off as terribly overstated and melodramatic to me, and I’m pretty hawkish). Honestly, it might have made Kerry look like a nut.
It would also have alienated the 50% or so of his Democratic base who want us to pull out of Iraq now and to work much harder to be nicer to the UN and to, well, basically apologizing for a level of aggressiveness that you find insufficient but which they already find excessive.
Kerry’s got a terribly fine line to walk if he’s to win. He’s got to convince his base that he’ll be less aggressive than Bush, yet won’t be a pussy. It’s not an easy task.