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
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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.

As far back as February, pollsters were charting a widening chasm between the American left and the rest of the country. Charlie Cook reported on February 19 that 63 percent of all likely voters supported war with Iraq. This was opposed by 66 percent of core Democrats. Just 29 percent of all voters thought Bush was going to war for the oil; 58 percent of core Democrats held this opinion. While 62 percent of core Democrats thought Bush was going to war to settle old scores for his father, only 27 percent of swing voters were so cynical. And while 64 percent of core Democrats thought Bush wanted a war to distract from various policy failures, only 26 percent of swing voters agreed. The left also thinks that the U.N.'s Kofi Annan is a figure of moral authority, that Hans Blix did a super job (and still should be doing it), and is rooting not so quietly for France, Belgium, and Germany to win their cold war in Europe against the U.K.

Core Democrats (read: primary voters) don't just split with the rest of the country; they split also with others within their own party. Half of all Democrats now back the war and the president. "Core Democrats," says Cook, "make up only a third of their party." But this tail wags the primary dog.

These numbers explain why Kerry is now in trouble. Calling for "regime change" in America is the least of it. That turn of phrase can be put down to pandering, over-exuberance, or the wish to appear as too fiendishly clever. His real problem is the part about America's "breach of trust" with our brave foreign allies, and our "end-run around the U.N." (A March 17 poll by USA Today found that only 20 percent of the American public now thinks of France as an ally, and that 68 percent blame France for the crackup.) His real problem is this statement he made about unnamed foreign leaders: "I don't think they're going to trust this president, no matter what. . . . It will take a new president . . . to clear the air and turn a new page on American history."

"Clear the air" supposes a stench, put there by the president. What Kerry was doing--what Daschle did earlier--was place the entire blame for the unpleasantness with the French, the Germans, and the U.N. Security Council on the president of the United States. He was taking the side of Jacques Chirac and of Gerhard Schröder against Bush, Blair, and Powell, and suggesting that the second three had somehow failed to meet the first two's high standards. He was taking the side of France, Russia, China, and Germany--the countries that did so much in the 20th century to make the world safe for genocide--against the United States and Great Britain, and the victims of some of these countries' aggressions, the onetime Communist satellites. He was also suggesting that the U.N. was the proper arbiter of when and how the United States should defend itself. Kerry has thus opened himself to several fruitful interrogations by both Democratic and Republican rivals.

1. Does he agree with the French that American power is dangerous, and that it is a good idea for France and the U.N. to contain it?

2. How does he stand on the civil war within Europe between the bloc led by France that wants to counter America, and the bloc led by England that wants to work as our partner? Which side does he think ought to win?

3. Many people now believe that the reason Bush's diplomacy "failed" is that the French lied to Powell many times over, and signed Resolution 1441 with no intention of ever enforcing it. Does he blame France for this? Does he blame France for anything? Or does he think the Bush administration drove them to it?

None of this may get much of an airing from a liberal primary audience, but an election campaign would be something quite different. On the other hand, Kerry is now brilliantly situated to make a run for president of France.

FOR A LONG TIME, it has been the conventional wisdom that the two parties both suffered a common malady: a base that turned off swing voters. Reconciling the two was a chore for both parties. They had to sweep their most loyal backers under the rug at conventions, or at least keep them off the stage during prime time. Luckily, though, the issues that engaged the base were niche ones--abortion and quotas--that did not deeply engage critical numbers of voters. This time, it's different. War and peace and national security are huge issues. Before, too, the two bases were seen as roughly co-equal in annoyance capacity. Now the Democrats win (or lose) this comparison hands down. On these issues, the Republican base is largely in sync with swing voters and all voters, while the Democrats' base is out by itself in left field. And that base is deeply annoying the general populace with its wartime protests. People are fed up with film stars and rock stars who can't keep their mouths shut, and protesters who sit down (or worse) in the street. On this issue at least, Bush can speak with one voice to his base and to swing voters, and even to some moderate Democrats. Democrats have to campaign as if in two different countries, one in old Europe (the primary contest) and one back in Middle America (the general election campaign). Their problem is that they can't keep what they say to the Old Europeans from reaching the ears of the Middle Americans. And from being repeated again and again.

This is the Democrats' long-standing problem, and it now seems beyond fixing. They can sometimes evade it when foreign issues recede (as in our recent vacation from history), but when dangers recur the old fissures open, just as if Bill Clinton had never existed. This is the reason why since 1968 they have elected exactly two presidents: one in response to the Watergate scandal, and one in our recent brief window of post-Cold War domestic ascendancy. Many people will vote for a candidate who does not follow their line on abortion or quotas. They will not do this about war and peace. For Democrats in safe seats (like Rangel), this is not a big problem, but it is a huge one for those on the national stage. Many, when tested, have stood up on principle: Joseph Lieberman, a lifelong hawk; the late Paul Wellstone, a lifelong dove; and Richard Gephardt, a dove made a hawk by September 11. Others, such as Kerry and Daschle, have treated it more as a political exercise, trying to establish their own viability by placing one toe in each camp. The common practice among Democrats of this sort has been to vote for the resolution that gave the president the power to make war on Iraq, while protesting all the steps he took to advance it; supporting the war in theory while opposing it in practice; doing just enough to avoid being attacked for a bad call should the war be successful; doing little enough to be able to swoop in like a vulture if it should take a turn for the worse.

The incoherence of this, much less its indecency, did a lot to hand Democrats their loss of the Senate, which they of course blamed on Bush. And the more they blamed him, the more they assailed him, the more people they drove away. And the more people they lost, the more they despised Bush, and the greater their need to hear him described as an idiot. This set the trap Kerry fell into. Loose lips sink drips.

Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.