July 30, 2004
John Kerry gave an effective speech, but on some key issues, it was sorely lacking.
In a way, the speech was circa 1960.
Like John F. Kennedy, Kerry was saying that the Democrats would be more reliable on defense issues than the Republicans, that he would be a better custodian of the American empire than Bush.
By surrounding himself with his Vietnam "band of brothers," and by the introductions of Max Cleland and Wesley Clark, Kerry burnished his martial bona fides. (Not for nothing did he mention "blood" in his first 100 words.)
"I will build a stronger military," he said, vowing to add 40,000 active duty troops and to provide new weapons and technologies.
And, like John Edwards the night before, Kerry did his own Bush imitation. "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security," he said.
That is the worst kind of mindless U.N.-bashing. There is nothing in the U.N. Charter that prohibits countries from defending themselves when their very survival is at stake. For Kerry to parrot Bush on this is to further deligitimize the United Nations, and to undercut Kerry's claim that he will work better with others.
Kerry did, however, draw some good distinctions with Bush, saying that Bush had distorted U.S. intelligence for political reasons. Kerry said he would "never mislead us into war," and he pledged to "bring back this nation's time-honored tradition: The United States of America never goes to war because we want to, we only go to war because we have to." (Historical aside: Did the United States have to enter the Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, World War I, Korea, Vietnam, and the first Gulf War?)
But as to what to do now on Iraq, Kerry had little new or helpful to offer. "We need a President who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden, reduce the cost to American taxpayers, and reduce the risk to American soldiers," he said.
That's essentially Bush's plan, too. And it's not working. The allies don't want to send their troops in. So then what?
Kerry and Edwards are on record saying the United States cannot afford to lose in Iraq. As a result, under their Administration, it's likely they will continue the occupation of Iraq, and U.S. troops will continue to die there. And so long as the Iraqi government is perceived as a stooge of Washington, which it is, it will have no legitimacy, and the resistance will only grow.
Kerry, who said famously in 1971, "How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?" will have a hard time answering that question for himself if he becomes commander and chief, which I expect he will.
On the war against Al Qaeda, Kerry missed two opportunities. First, to slam Bush for letting Osama bin Laden go when U.S. troops had him surrounded in Tora Bora. (Maybe it's too risky for Kerry to do so since Bush might drag Osama out by his beard for Halloween.) And second, to show how Bush's policies are really aiding Al Qaeda.
It's not enough for Kerry again to ape Bush by saying to the terrorists, "You will lose, and we will win." The ranks of terrorists are not finite. The United States must get at the roots of terrorism.
And right now, two U.S. policies are watering those roots: maintaining the occupation of Iraq, and supporting Israel's occupation of Palestinian land. As I've suggested, Kerry showed no promising way of ending the Iraq War, and he was totally silent on the question of Israeli policies (and when he has addressed this issue, he has backed Ariel Sharon to the hilt).
Nor, for that matter, did Kerry talk about the need to address global poverty or to bring together a world forum of Islamic religious leaders, who could offer a different path than fundamentalism to the 1.3 billion Muslims in the world.
Kerry talked about how he sees "complexities," but on the issue of Islamic fundamentalism, he didn't identify many.
On domestic issues, Kerry was much better.
His best point of the night was about dissent in America. At a time when people who protest against Bush are being accused of being unAmerican and when the Attorney General says people who criticize him are giving "aid and ammunition" to the enemy, Kerry defended our most crucial civil liberty.
"Our purpose now is to reclaim democracy itself," he said. "We are here to affirm that when Americans stand up and speak their minds and say America can do better, that is not a challenge to patriotism. It is the heart and soul of patriotism."
He invoked the Constitution twice, once to take a swipe at John Ashcroft and again to tag Republicans for trying to misuse it for political purposes (a thinly veiled reference to the proposed amendment banning same-sex marriage).
Kerry adroitly talked about "the conscience of the country" in the context of helping the millions of people in poverty, or out of work, or without health care.
And his pledge to invest in job creation, health care, education, Head Start, and alternative energy was welcome, though hardly daring or ambitious.
Fortunately, Kerry didn't indulge in Clintonian demagoguery on issues like capital punishment or welfare (though his record on both is not sterling). But compared to other previous Democratic candidates dating back to FDR, Truman, and Humphrey, Kerry presented a domestic agenda of clipped liberalism.
Gone was the guarantee of full employment.
Gone the entire idea of a guaranteed minimum income.
Gone the hope for universal health care any time soon.
Gone the peace dividend.
Gone the drive to restrain corporate power.
Gone the ideal of full public financing of campaigns.
And on foreign policy, Kerry was 180 degrees from George McGovern's repudiation of empire and at least 90 degrees away from Jimmy Carter's commitment to human rights and nuclear disarmament.
Instead, Kerry was mostly content to show off his war medals, salute the flag as crisply as the Republicans, invoke God, and play up his more humane domestic policies.
There are real differences, yes, between Kerry and Bush: on the environment, on civil rights, on abortion (unmentioned in his speech), on gay marriage, on civil liberties, on labor rights, on tax policy, on the judiciary, on health care, and on unilateralism.
But there are also real differences between Kerry's view and the expansive vision of some of his predecessors, a vision that we desperately need today.