The Challenger’s Dilemma

WaPo has an Analysis piece entitled “Kerry Struggles on Iraq Issue.” It’s a very insightful look into the dynamics of a campaign moreso than anything to do with John Kerry. Jim VandeHei notes that, despite our not finding WMD and a host of problems, Kerry can’t seem to make any headway on the war debate.

Kerry, who voted for the congressional authorization of the war in October 2002 but quickly became a critic of Bush’s Iraq policy, sounded a lot like the president Friday in cautioning against retreat and calling for a continued U.S. lead in securing the region. “We must lead a broad coalition against our adversaries, and we must be a beacon of values as well as strength,” the Democratic candidate said in a speech at Westminster College.

Bush, deftly using the power of the bully pulpit, has boxed Kerry out by essentially adopting the more multilateral approach his rival has favored for two years. “It’s a message the president has adopted slowly and in pieces,” said Rand Beers, Kerry’s national security adviser. “Bush is copying Kerry.”

There are several areas where Bush’s and Kerry’s positions have begun to merge. Kerry called for increased NATO involvement the same week Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the European press that he hoped that NATO, when it meets in June, would agree to play a role in Iraq. Moreover, Bush has moved in recent weeks to provide the United Nations with a larger role in governing and in the effort to rebuild Iraqi security forces. Both Bush and Kerry support providing more U.S. troops if needed.

“We may have differences about how we went into Iraq, but we do not have the choice to just pick up, leave,” Kerry said Friday.

Incumbents have the advantage of initiative whereas challengers must react. The latter can be an advantageous position on issues of domestic policy, as one can always complain that things should be better. It’s much more difficult on foreign policy, let alone a war. Even if he wanted to–and I don’t believe he does–Kerry couldn’t well advocate pulling out at this stage of the game. He can carp on the edges but he has to be careful not to be seen as trying to make hay out of battle casualties, get excited over American defeats, or somehow “opposing the troops.”

By playing within the rules, Kerry gets socked with this:

Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, said: “John Kerry’s speech on Iraq today neglected to offer any new ideas or credible alternative to the American people. . . . His rhetoric simply echoes the policies the administration is already implementing, while offering nothing but criticism.”

It’s actually true in this case; Kerry doesn’t have much substantive to offer other than that we should “internationalize” and otherwise quit “F’ing it up so bad.” Laudable goals both, to be sure, but not particularly helpful. And, of course, if he actually came out with a brilliant plan that gained widespread acclaim, Bush could simply implement it and get 99% of the credit for the success.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2004
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.