The Magazine

Four Questions for Kerry

From the August 2, 2004 issue: Whether or not Kerry can win depends on whether he can succeed in answering four obvious questions.

Aug 2, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 44 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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HOW IS JOHN KERRY DIFFERENT from every other liberal Democrat from Massachusetts? This is the question Sen. Kerry needs to answer this week at the Democratic convention in Boston. For, even though President Bush's poll numbers are less than he (and we at THE WEEKLY STANDARD) would like them to be, they're good enough that he won't be Carter in 1980 or Bush in 1992. Though beatable, he isn't an incumbent asking (so to speak) to be defeated. So John Kerry needs actually to win this election. He can't simply count on Bush's losing it.

Now, Kerry doesn't need to win by being personally compelling or dramatically effective. He does need to be an acceptable, responsible alternative to the president. Or, rather, he needs to be seen by a majority of American voters as an acceptable, responsible replacement for Bush as president. And he needs to make this case in a post-9/11, post-Iraq-war, post-same-sex-marriage-in-Massachusetts world.

Kerry is very well aware of this challenge. He has gone out of his way to move to the center since clinching the nomination. He doesn't sound like a Massachusetts liberal, like Ted Kennedy or Michael Dukakis. In fact, one would hardly know Kerry has been, in truth, a Massachusetts liberal for his entire political career. His task at the convention is to further obscure that fact. But can he do it? That depends on whether he can succeed in answering four obvious questions any sensible citizen, surveying his career, will ask.

1. If Kerry were president, would he be willing to use force? John Kerry opposed President Reagan's policy of providing military aid to the anti-Communist resistance in Central America. He opposed the first Gulf War. He voted against the $87 billion necessary to continue prosecuting the current war in Iraq (one of only 12 senators to do so). Is he really capable of being commander in chief in the world we find ourselves living in since 9/11?

2. If Kerry had been president the past four years, would Saddam still be in power? In October 2002, Kerry voted to authorize the use of military force to remove Saddam. But now he suggests that President Bush "misled the nation into fighting" this war. Given what we now know, does Kerry believe going to war to remove Saddam was the right decision? Does he believe, as he seems to have indicated, that the war on terror is "really" about fighting al Qaeda, or does the war on terror include dealing with dictators with terror ties and weapons of mass destruction programs? Is Kerry willing to hold open, therefore, the possibility of the use of force to prevent the current Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons?

3. If Kerry were president, would we pull out of Iraq? Kerry says he would not cut and run in Iraq. But the single most famous statement of his political career remains his dramatic cry as a leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement in 1971: "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" How will President Kerry ask young Americans to continue dying in a war he has denounced as one President Bush "wanted" to fight rather than one the United States needed to fight?

4. If Kerry were president, would marriage be redefined? Kerry opposes a constitutional amendment affirming in our basic law that marriage joins a man and a woman. Furthermore, he was one of only 14 Senate Democrats to oppose the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), signed by President Clinton in 1996, which sought legislatively to confine court decisions authorizing same-sex marriage in one state (such as Massachusetts) to that state. Wouldn't Kerry's judicial appointees tend to agree with the argument he made in 1996 that DOMA is unconstitutional? Doesn't a Kerry presidency guarantee that the courts will succeed in changing the meaning of marriage throughout the United States?

We look forward to Sen. Kerry's acceptance speech on Thursday evening, as he seeks to answer these questions.

--William Kristol