A generation ago Vietnam was the polarizing war to end all polarizing wars. The U.S. was suffering through a casualty meltdown, key ally disapprobation and agonizing confusion over America’s role in the world.
But U.S. security and the American way of life were never threatened — as they are now. No American was killed by a suicide domino. Ho Chi Minh was neither an international outlaw nor a terrorist mastermind. “Apocalypse Now” was only a post-facto movie title. The Gulf of Tonkin war rationale wasn’t unmasked until years later.
And yet an incumbent American president — one who had been elected overwhelmingly — didn’t dare run for re-election.
But that was then, and this is now.
President George W. Bush is in the political cross hairs for an ill-advised war and a mismanaged occupation that has morphed into a menacing, jahadi pep rally. American casualties are now a daily drumbeat. Bush has, quite arguably, given unilateral and arrogant especially bad names around the world, most notably among America’s traditional allies. America is perceived as having ceded the moral high ground it was accorded on Sept. 11, 2001. Bush seems a kept man of the neocons.
Yet the president remains in a statistical dead heat with his Democratic opponent.
What it means is that George W. Bush is fortunate to have John Kerry as his opponent.
The anti-Bush sector, hardly confined to traditional partisans or Michael Mooreons, should be a daunting enough prospect for the incumbent. Then add those rallying around Kerry — per se — and Bush should be behind. Maybe big time. That he isn’t means there isn’t enough of a pro-Kerry constituency to add to the anti-Bush bloc. Ralph Nader has more true believers than Kerry. So did Carol Mosely-Braun.
Imagine if the Democratic standard-bearer were Wesley Clark or Joe Biden or even Al Gore, The Sequel? Karl Rove might be throwing himself on Donald Rumsfeld’s sword by now.
One key factor, of course, is Kerry’s penchant for antipodal positions. His reputation is well earned — with no need for a dirty trickster or a soft-money ad to label him a politically expedient “flip flopper.” Kerry’s problem with principle has persisted since his war criminal epiphany.
But what really matters is this. America is at war, and Kerry’s most perplexing positions are those related to — war. And, no, it has nothing to do with Vietnam — or the time capsule of malcontent and misgiving now swiftly making the rounds.
What’s pertinent is that Kerry voted against the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the one where the U.S. had the sort of coalition that we all wish America still had today. And lest we forget, that was a war precipitated by a military provocation — the invasion of Kuwait and threats to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Then more than a decade later Kerry voted for the resolution authorizing the president to go to war against Iraq — before voting against its funding.
But the biggest deterrent to any meaningful, conviction-based groundswell of support for Kerry is this: He still can’t bring himself to say he would vote differently on the war resolution. You don’t have to be Dennis Kucinich to see the folly in that.
Maybe it’s a measured response to avoid unflattering comparisons with George Romney’s “brainwashing” excuse for supporting the Vietnam War in the 1970s. Maybe it’s a Massachusetts Democrat’s overreaction to the Dukakis-in-a-tank syndrome. Maybe it’s a pre-emptive strike against the off-the-rack stereotype of liberals not being tough enough. Maybe it’s all the over-the-top, “Reporting for duty” war metaphors from the Democratic convention.
But there’s no maybes about this: Kerry has allowed himself to be painted into a rhetorical corner where he’s, in effect, saying: “Read my lips. If I knew then what I — and everybody else — know now, I would still have voted for the resolution to go to war.”
That makes no sense. None. How can you remain myopic with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight? It makes Teddy Kennedy’s stammering, “Why-I-want-to-be-president” response to Roger Mudd seem coherent, articulate and even savvy by comparison.
Why agree with the president on the single most consequential, defining — and polarizing — issue of the campaign? Why defend the indefensible? Why undercut the best case for changing the commander-in-chief?
If John Kerry ends up sending a concession telegram to George W. Bush, the president should respond with a thank you card.