Bush Winning Iraq Debate
For five days now, as the long-distance arguments between President Bush and Senator John Kerry have focused on the wisdom of invading Iraq, Mr. Kerry has struggled to convince his audiences that his vote to authorize the president to use military force was a far, far cry from voting for a declaration of war. So far, his aides and advisers concede, he has failed to get his message across, as Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have mocked his efforts as “a new nuance” that amount to more examples of the senator’s waffling.
Mr. Kerry’s problems began last week when President Bush challenged him for a yes-or-no answer on a critical campaign issue: If Mr. Kerry knew more than a year ago what he knows today about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would he still have voted to authorize the use of military force to oust Saddam Hussein? As Mr. Bush surely knew, it is a question that can upset the difficult balance Mr. Kerry must strike. He has to portray himself as tough and competent enough to be commander in chief, yet appeal to the faction of Democrats that hates the war and eggs him on to call Mr. Bush a liar.
But the decision, in the end, was Mr. Kerry’s. He chose to take the bait on Monday at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Asked by a reporter, he said he would have voted for the resolution – even in the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction – before adding his usual explanation that he would have subsequently handled everything leading up to the war differently.
Mr. Bush, sensing he had ensnared Mr. Kerry, stuck in the knife on Tuesday, telling a rally in Panama City, Fla., that “he now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq.” The Kerry camp says that interpretation of Mr. Kerry’s words completely distorted the difference between a vote to authorize war and a decision to commit troops to the battlefield.
Mr. Kerry’s answer is being second-guessed among his supporters, some of whom argued that he should have been more wary of the trap. “I wish he had simply said no president in his right mind would ask the Senate to go to war against a country that didn’t have weapons that pose an imminent threat,” said one of Mr. Kerry’s Congressional colleagues and occasional advisers.
Senator Biden argued that Mr. Kerry is being “asked to explain Bush’s failure through his own vote. I saw a headline that said ‘Kerry Would Have Gone to War.’ That’s bull. He wouldn’t have. Not the way Bush did. But that wasn’t the choice at the time – the choice was looking for a way to hold Saddam accountable.”
Such distinctions don’t exactly ring as campaign themes. On Wednesday, Vice President Cheney did his best to worsen Mr. Kerry’s troubles. He issued a statement noting that Mr. Kerry “voted for the war” but turned against it “when it was politically expedient” and now has his aides “saying that his vote to authorize force wasn’t really a vote to go to war.” “We need a commander in chief who is steady and steadfast,” he said.
This is excellent gamesmanship, without a doubt. It’s more than that, though. Kerry is trying to have it both ways, wanting credit for appearing “tough” in the national security arena while trying to escape all blame for things that have gone wrong in the war. Cheny is right: steadfastness is a necessary quality in a wartime president. Kerry is a thoughtful guy, but perhaps too much so. A leader can’t second guess himself with every minor setback. Perhaps Bush is a bit too steadfast, stubbornly holding onto positions well after the facts show a policy to be failing. Neither extreme is ideal. If forced to pick between the two, I’d rather have the guy who’s a bit too cocky than one who can’t make a decision.
Update: Steven Taylor agrees, noting “Indeed, to call it ‘mocking’ is to reduce a serious policy debate (perhaps the debate of the campaign) to what sounds like a petty tit-for-tat contest.”