TCS Daily

Actions and Words

By Arnold Kling - July 30, 2004 12:00 AM

Before you go to battle, you have to be able to look a parent in the eye and truthfully say: ``I tried everything possible to avoid sending your son or daughter into harm's way. But we had no choice. We had to protect the American people, fundamental American values from a threat that was real and imminent.'' So lesson one, this is the only justification for going to war.
-- Democratic nominee John Kerry, in his acceptance speech

These words, intended to suggest that John Kerry would not have gone to war in Vietnam or Iraq, speak even more strongly against intervention in Haiti, Kosovo, or Darfur. Taken on its face, it would be the most isolationist platform any candidate has run on since the 1930's, in an era where technology and events have made isolationism seem less plausible than at any time in America's history. As appealing as those words may have sounded to a nation weary of bad news in Iraq, there is no way that John Kerry would live up to them were he to be elected President.

President Bush has no choice but to defend his actions in Iraq. He can "spin" all he wants, but the facts are out there, good or bad. A few whiffs of weapons of mass destruction found, but no large stockpiles. Saddam Hussein toppled and some Iraqis thrilled, but a bloody and ruthless terrorist campaign that shows little sign of abating.

Kerry, on the other hand, has only words on his record. And in his nomination speech, his words were designed to win popular appeal for doing things that he has no intention or capability of achieving. The naive isolationism of the line quoted above is just one example. On trade, energy, and the long-term Budget, Kerry promised the impossible, thereby leaving the voters with no idea what his real choices would be. As the Washington Post editorial put it, "Mr. Kerry missed an opportunity for straight talk."

I expect demagoguery in a political speech. I expect platitudes. But Kerry is running against an incumbent who has made difficult decisions and clear choices. Kerry's own history, meanwhile, has raised concerns about flip-flopping, suggesting that he has difficulty taking ownership for his positions. Even in Vietnam, his signature biographical event, he has gone back and forth between calling service in the armed forces honorable and dishonorable. The context in which he is running makes the evasiveness of Kerry's acceptance speech particularly disturbing.

The Trade Issue

On trade, Kerry said that "our plan calls for a fair playing field because if you give the American worker a fair playing field, there's nobody in the world the American worker can't compete against." This makes trade sound like a war, with American workers competing "against" other workers. In fact, trade is a positive-sum game, with American workers improving their standard of living through the efficient division of labor that increases the share of jobs in this country with high productivity and good wages.

One of President Kerry's top policy wonks on trade is Laura Tyson, who compiled an outstanding record in the Clinton Administration, in spite of the fact that Paul Krugman threw a hissy fit when she was appointed in 1993 to head the Council of Economic Advisers. As Matthew Yglesias reports, Tyson says that Kerry's views are in fact those of a free trader, and that in reality he will oppose what she calls "my party's base" that "is consistently asking for policies that would take the US backwards."

On trade, President Bush has a record to defend, and it is not a particularly good one. On several occasions, his Administration has imposed tariffs which set back the cause of free trade. Kerry, on the other hand, knows in private that free trade is right, but he denounces it in public. The economists who support him try to ease the concerns of those of us who are skeptical by assuring us that he is lying.


Another politically powerful paragraph in Kerry's speech was, "I want an America that relies on its own ingenuity and innovation, not the Saudi royal family. And our energy plan for a stronger America will invest in new technologies and alternative fuels and the cars of the future -- so that no young American in uniform will ever be held hostage to our dependence on oil from the Middle East."

Sigh. It seems as though no one can run for President without promising to repeal the laws of Oil Econ 101. President Bush has also pursued the chimera of energy independence, with his push for hydrogen.

What does Kerry accomplish with his gratuitous Saudi-bashing? He was not assertively telling them how he expects their policies to change -- he was simply insulting them in order to win applause on the conventional floor. Getting tough with the Saudis would be fine. But my idea of getting tough with the Saudis is not thumbing your nose at them and threatening to build futuristic cars. Once again, Kerry's words have no substance.

The Budget

On the most important Budget issues, Kerry staked out the position that "As President, I will not privatize Social Security. I will not cut benefits." In addition, he promised to cut middle class taxes, greatly expand government's role in providing health care, increase spending on education and the military, and yet "make government live by the rule that every family has to follow: pay as you go."

One could argue that the most disappointing aspect of the Bush Presidency is his failure to provide a responsible long-term Budget. In my view, he has committed populist demagoguery by enacting an unfunded prescription drug benefit and doing nothing to place Social Security and Medicare on a sound financial footing. Kerry's reaction to this demagoguery? I'll see ya and raise ya.

Beat Something with Nothing?

My expectations for politicians are not terribly high. Nearly all politicians try to fudge and evade issues to some extent. However, it seems to me that Kerry is going to the utmost extreme to keep his intentions covered by a smokescreen of rhetoric. Difficult decisions lie ahead, particularly in dealing with Islamist terrorism and the Budget, and Kerry is not conveying to us how he would make those decisions.

Democrats are of the opinion that President Bush's policies have been so transparently awful that voters should be eager for an alternative. If that is the case, then there is no need for excessive caution. The Democratic nominee could risk taking some clear stands. Instead, Kerry gave us nothing but feel-good rhetoric and promises on energy, the Budget, trade, and foreign policy that everybody knows are phony.

President Bush has a record. John Kerry is still undefined. Can you beat something with nothing?


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