The Magazine

John Kerry's Hari-Kari

Calling for "regime change" in America is only one of the Democratic candidate's problems.

Apr 21, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 31 • By NOEMIE EMERY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

IT'S NOT OFTEN that you see an American commit hari-kari in public, but that's what John Kerry appears to have done. In one thrill-packed day--April 2--in New Hampshire, he managed to (1) blame George W. Bush for the train wreck in the U.N. Security Council, (2) take his stand with this country's foreign detractors, (3) take the side of France, Germany, Russia, and China in their cold war with the United States and Great Britain, and (4) call for "regime change" in the United States, thereby implying a resemblance between the American president and the crazed megalomaniac we deposed in Iraq. "What we need now is not just a regime change in Saddam Hussein and Iraq, but we need a regime change in the United States," Kerry told an enthusiastic crowd in Peterborough. The proximate cause of this outburst seems to have been polls showing the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination tied with Howard Dean in New Hampshire. That and the fundraising numbers released April 1, which showed John Edwards doing much better than expected, and Kerry rather less well than was thought.

Kerry's first problem is that he was breaking his own pledge--barely two weeks old--to tone down his critiques while American troops are in danger. His second problem is that the story broke nationwide on Wednesday, April 3, up to that point the Allies' best day since the war started, which made his tale of a failing Bush effort appear more than a little ridiculous. But his real problem is the deeper one that in differing ways now afflicts his whole party. What stirs up its base appalls and affronts the rest of the country. And this is a very bad sign.

There is a significant chunk of the Democratic party that really does think comparing Bush to Saddam is not rhetorically out of bounds. To them, he is the illegitimate un-president who stole the election, parlayed the shock from September 11 into a crass grab for power, and now is rampaging his way around the globe. (Besides being religious, a Texan, and not quite their glass of Merlot.) A seething and visceral loathing of Bush saturates such opinion journals as the Nation and the American Prospect and has worked its way into the ambit of mainstream America through the work of, among others, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert (do we sense a Times trend here?), Mary McGrory, and Eleanor Clift. "The media have mostly been impressed by Bush's apparent calm resolve," writes the American Prospect's Robert Kuttner in the Boston Globe. "But that's not what I see. I see a man in thrall to an obsession, unhinged from a prudent sense of proportion, captured by a small group of foreign policy radicals, and dangerously out of touch with world realities." A sizable chunk of Democratic primary voters sees just what Kuttner does. That's why Kerry set up his applause line by accusing President Bush of a "breach of trust with American allies." And that's why Tom Daschle in his now-famous speech to a union audience on March 17, the very day Bush gave his ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, described himself as "saddened, saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we're now forced to war."

Kerry spoke from the cocoon of the left, where, as we are told by Michael Barone, "Bush is regarded as an illegitimate president, a usurper who is trying to impose crazed conservative theories, a stupid man incapable of understanding a sophisticated world." Rep. Charles Rangel spoke from the depths of this same small mental bunker when he said about Bush, on a televised talk show, "with all due respect to the president, I don't think he has the experience for me to be listening to him on how the war's going or what we should be doing." Daschle and Kerry were speaking to small groups of liberals and got into trouble when their words were sent out by the press to a much wider audience. Rangel got into trouble when he neglected to edit himself and spoke to a wide and diverse national audience the way that he speaks to his friends. All three were stunned to discover that vast numbers of people don't share their contempt for the president.