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Kerry Nation?

From the February 23, 2004, issue: Don't bet on it.

Feb 23, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 23 • By FRED BARNES
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Kerry's inconsistency on Iraq is his greatest liability, not just because he's taken incompatible positions, but because he's trifled with a serious national security issue. He voted against the Gulf War in 1991, for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, and then against $87 billion to fund the Iraq effort. The only coherent explanation for these votes is political expediency. He voted each time for what would advance his political career as a Democrat. When those votes began to sour, he changed his tune. Once the war to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait became a popular success, he said he had backed it all along. This year when Democratic elites turned against the war, Kerry suddenly adopted an antiwar position, explaining his vote for the war resolution as merely a vote to "threaten" Iraq, not invade.

Bush should have no trouble scoring off Kerry on issue after issue. Politics, however, is a strange business. You never know what will stick. The charge that Bush shirked National Guard duty in Alabama in 1972 and 1973 didn't catch on in the 2000 campaign, but now it has touched off a press feeding frenzy. So maybe even sly and humorous TV ads won't persuade voters of Kerry's shortcomings. Perhaps a more blunt approach will work. Perhaps not.

Bush has one thing, and probably two, to fall back on. The first is the economy. There's every reason to expect growth of 4.5 percent to 5 percent in 2004. But will it be a jobless recovery? Not likely. The Bush economic team projects 2.6 million new jobs this year, wiping out the losses of earlier years. The Federal Reserve figures on 1.5 million to 2 million. The Blue Chip Forecast of top economists pegs job growth at 2 million. They all may be lowballing. In the 1990s, a year with 4 million new jobs was followed by a year in which 3.5 million were created. Several quarters posted job gains of one million. In any case, no president seeking reelection--and unchallenged for his party's nomination--has lost with an economy like this.

There's always Iraq, where everything depends on the turnover of sovereignty on July 1. If it goes well--which means neither civil war nor anarchy--the Iraq issue will remain a positive for the president. If the immediate result in sovereign Iraq is mixed, Bush may still claim success. The recently intercepted memo from terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi suggests anti-American diehards are rapidly losing heart.

Nothing is more pathetic in the Washington political community these days than tremulous Republicans and conservatives who whine about how Bush may lose to Kerry. Well, he might, but don't bet on it. A simple rule is worth recalling: In politics, the future is never a straight-line projection of the present. The media may think polls showing Kerry ahead of Bush in February are predictive of what will happen on November 2, but that's foolishness. The primaries will end in a few weeks and the Kerry phase of the campaign will fade. Unless Bush stumbles badly, the next phase will be his.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.