The Magazine

The Last Refuge

From the August 9, 2004 issue: The Democratic nominee has shunned substance for patriotic atmospherics. Will it work?

Aug 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 45 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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UNWILLING TO ARTICULATE a serious policy agenda, unable to explain why his record qualifies him to be president, John Kerry fled Thursday night to the refuge of patriotism.

Kerry's convention speech was in some respects competent, in some respects pedestrian, in some respects bizarre. But it sure was patriotic. And perhaps to good political effect. After all, the American people are patriotic. Over the last quarter century, they have often suspected that elements of the Democratic party are not as patriotic as they are--or not patriotic in the same uncomplicated, straightforward way. In the peaceful 1990s, this suspicion did little damage to Democratic presidential candidates. But the 1990s ended on September 11, 2001. Now we are at war. So John Kerry wrapped the flag tightly around himself in his acceptance speech in order to convince Americans doubtful about President Bush that they could safely go ahead and vote to remove him, and put Kerry in charge.

This strategy may not work. But it is not stupid. What, after all, were Kerry's alternatives?

Should he in his speech have emphasized his public record? Kerry feels entitled to the presidency ("I'm not kidding. I was born in the West Wing"), but he has done remarkably little in two decades in the Senate to support a claim to it ("When I came to the Senate, I broke with many in my own party to vote for a balanced budget, because I thought it was the right thing to do. I fought to put 100,000 police officers on the streets of America. And then I reached out across the aisle with John McCain to work to find the truth about our POWs and missing in action and to finally make peace in Vietnam").

Should Kerry have taken a clear position on the Iraq war? Too risky. On the one hand, a plurality of the American people now say they oppose having gone to war to remove Saddam. On the other hand, Kerry doesn't want to be accused of favoring leaving Saddam in power. So he dodged the issue by suggesting that the current commander in chief "misled" us into war. Kerry also vowed "to get the job done" in Iraq without saying what the "job" is, and to "bring our troops home" without saying how or when or under what conditions he would, or would not, cut and run.

Should Kerry have used his speech to articulate a coherent foreign policy for moving forward? Too difficult. So he simply claimed to be ready to be commander in chief and gave a 45-minute speech so vague that it mentioned no actual countries other than Iraq and Vietnam--not Afghanistan, not Iran, not North Korea, not China.

Should Kerry have elaborated on his view that our nation's "time-honored tradition" is that "the United States of America never goes to war because we want to; we only go to war because we have to"? Yet he might then have had to explain not only why he voted for war in Iraq, but also why he supported our military efforts in Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans--surely not instances where we "had" to fight to "protect against a threat."

Should Kerry have come clean that the Democrats remain, in their heart and soul, a pre-9/11 party? Kerry suggested as much when he said, "Let's not forget what we did in the 1990s. . . . We just need to believe in ourselves and we can do it again," and when he exhorted, "We need to make America once again a beacon in the world"--presumably meaning as it was around 1999. But as Kerry himself had to acknowledge, "the world tonight is very different from the world of four years ago."

Should Kerry have elaborated on his claim to yearn for the days right after September 11, 2001, when we were united to "meet the danger"? How could he? He could not even bring himself in his speech to praise the removal of the Taliban and the liberation of the people of Afghanistan.

So Kerry made a reasonable political judgment when he chose to wrap himself in Old Glory on Thursday night. He wants to be an acceptable alternative should the American people choose to replace President Bush. But that puts the ball back in Bush's court.

What Bush needs to do is simple: make the positive case for his reelection--for his stewardship of the country since September 11, for the war in Iraq, for his overall success in the global war on terror. He should spend August making this positive argument, and mostly ignoring Kerry.

The Democratic nominee has shunned substance for patriotic atmospherics. He has failed to provide a real argument for himself, or against the incumbent president. He has therefore given President Bush an open field and a fair chance to make the case for his reelection.

--William Kristol