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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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.