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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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.