Kerry Needs Clarity on Iraq, Then Focus on Economy, Health

Posted September 17, 2004 at 3:01pm

Dan Rather said last week that his CBS team had spent five years investigating President Bush’s National Guard service in the 1970s. What a waste.[IMGCAP(1)]

Arguably, Democrat John Kerry’s conduct in Vietnam and as an anti-war leader afterward are relevant to the 2004 presidential campaign because Kerry has made them so. But that, too, was a mistake.

What voters deserve to hear in a presidential campaign is how each candidate’s record qualifies him to be president and what his plans are for the country’s future.

Character certainly matters, but what would it tell us if CBS is right — despite documentation that looks more bogus by the minute — that Bush benefited from “pull” to get into the Texas Air National Guard and then shirked his duty at the close of his service?

That was 31 years ago, at a time when Bush admits he was “young and irresponsible.” It would undoubtedly affect the campaign if evidence developed akin to the late-breaking news in 2000 that he’d had a drunken-driving arrest, but no one has come near to finding such material this year.

On the other side, Kerry definitely gets character points for having served in combat in Vietnam, but he completely overplayed that record as a qualification to be commander in chief today.

Then, when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth raised questions about Kerry’s Vietnam record, they were aiming at the very core of Kerry’s candidacy. The Swifties’ charges — that Kerry didn’t deserve his medals — remain unproven, but the controversy did marginally hurt Kerry.

Out on the stump, both Bush and Kerry have been talking about the issues that matter — Iraq, the economy, health care — but the media have been preoccupied with the sideshows. If CBS finally admits it was had on the Bush Guard documents, perhaps the country can hear the candidates.

Kerry has a strong point to make: Bush deserves to be judged as commander in chief on the Iraq record, and conditions there look worse by the day.

U.S. military deaths this month average more than three per day, putting September on track to being the fourth most-deadly month since the war began in March 2003.

Insurgents control more than three dozen cities and towns, raising serious doubts about whether Iraqi elections can be conducted on schedule next January.

The Financial Times reported that U.S. military commanders say they cannot guarantee security even in the Green Zone in the center of Baghdad, raising the possibility of a catastrophic attack timed to rattle the U.S. electorate before our elections.

It’s clear, as Kerry charges, that Bush and his aides badly miscalculated the aftermath of victory in the Iraq war, ignored State Department warnings of the possibility of insurgency and dismissed professional military estimates of the number of troops needed to provide security.

Bush’s approval ratings ought to be sinking and Kerry’s fortunes should be rising, as happened this spring when the news from Iraq was relentlessly grim.

But it’s not happening because Republicans have succeeded in raising serious doubts about Kerry’s record on national security issues, and because Kerry himself has been incoherent about his own Iraq policy.

Kerry has hired skilled political operatives from the Clinton era who think that, regardless of the dismay voters express in focus groups, they respond to hard-edged negative campaigning. And Kerry now is on the attack.

However, his new team of message experts has yet to figure out how to help Kerry make sense about Iraq.

In his latest outing, on the Don Imus radio show, Kerry said there were “no circumstances” under which he would have gone to war in Iraq, yet “it was right to hold [Saddam Hussein] accountable.” Imus, who has endorsed Kerry, said “I can’t tell you what he said.”

Kerry is suffering badly from his inability to lay out a consistent position on Iraq. Even in the Pew Research Center poll last week, which showed the two candidates running neck-and-neck nationally, Bush was leading by 52 percent to 40 percent on the question of which candidate the public trusted to handle the war.

Voters said they trusted Bush more on Iraq even though only 47 percent said they approved of his handling of the issue.

The Gallup Poll last Friday showed Bush leading among likely voters by a whopping 55 percent to 42 percent. The RealClearPolitics.com average of all national polls showed Bush leading 49.1 percent to 43.6 percent and his overall approval rating at 51.1 percent.

Kerry is on stronger ground on the economy and health care. Pew showed that Bush’s approval is only at 44 percent on the economy and that voters prefer Kerry to manage it by a margin of 46 percent to 40 percent.

Kerry has a powerful positive message on the economy if he can get it out: Restore Clinton-level taxes for the rich and the country can provide health insurance for nearly 30 million people and also invest in education.

Bush ads have been falsely accusing Kerry of trying to foist government-controlled health care on the population when he’d actually provide tax credits for people to buy their own insurance.

To make a comeback, Kerry needs to get the public focused on health care and the economy — and to explain himself clearly on Iraq. There’s still time.