TCS Daily

Where's the Resonance, Kerry?

By Michael Rosen - October 4, 2004 12:00 AM

Why hasn't Senator John Kerry's newly formulated Iraq policy gained traction among voters? Even in the wake of a relatively strong performance in the first debate, and more than a week after he delivered what a majority of commentators called his most impressive address of the campaign, in which he leveled his harshest criticism to date of President Bush's performance in Iraq, Kerry's poll numbers haven't moved much.

Why, then, has this aggressive tack not paid dividends? While some pundits have attributed the failure of the new line to strategic missteps, and others have pointed to the inappropriateness of "rooting for failure" in Iraq, the simplest explanation is the most compelling: the substance of Kerry's Iraq plan is redundant, unrealistic, or just plain wrong.

Start with the policy itself. After relentless pounding from the Bush campaign about the senator's inability to take an enduring position on any policy of consequence, Kerry and his advisers decided to stand firm, once and for all, on Iraq.

This they did on September 20 at New York University where Kerry tossed his liberal base plenty of red meat by lambasting Bush for "colossal failures of judgment" in Iraq. The senator pronounced that the president had "misled, miscalculated, and mismanaged" the invasion and the reconstruction, along the way adopting the argument that Iraq was a "profound diversion" from the War on Terror, an argument he repeated during the debate.

More importantly, Kerry outlined four steps to reduce violence and promote democracy in Iraq: seek help from allies, intensify training of Iraqi security forces, expedite reconstruction, and guarantee elections. And in a little-noticed aside, the senator stated that he would like to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by next summer.

Initially, The New Republic's Ryan Lizza and other commentators gushed about a possible Kerry comeback or turning point, claiming that the senator would gain ground by changing the focus of the Iraq debate from his own positions to "specific negative facts on the ground." Kerry was seen as neutralizing his image as a flip-flopper by articulating a crystal-clear position.

Yet the comeback has yet to materialize in any significant way. A CBS News poll taken from September 12 to 16 revealed that 50% of registered voters favored Bush while 41% supported Kerry. Bush's lead among registered voters declined by only 1% (49%-41%) in a CBS survey published on September 23, three days after the NYU speech.

Similarly, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll taken after the address depicted a 5% gain for Kerry among likely voters over a survey from the week before. But the same poll also revealed a 5% bump for Bush among registered voters. This must have been disheartening to the Kerry campaign, whose senior advisers have favored registered voter surveys and have warned against undue reliance on pollsters' methodologies for identifying likely voters.

Other polls indicated a slight Bush advantage even in Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Kerry has led all year. Post-debate polls are still inconclusive but appear to indicate that the president retains a lead.

So what's going on? Some pundits, most prominently famed political consultant Dick Morris, have argued that Kerry is caught in an impossible strategic bind in which he is torn between two wings of his party bitterly divided about the Iraq war: one fiercely anti, the other moderately pro. Any move in either direction inevitably alienates the opposing camp; with the NYU speech, then, Kerry may have shored up liberal support but at the price of distancing moderates.

Despite the surface appeal of this argument, by all appearances the Democrats are more united than they have been in decades. It would seem, then, that even the moderate "wing" of the party, equally eager to remove Bush from office, would be capable of making a strategic peace with Kerry's more critical approach.

But if Kerry's problems have little to do with the tactics of the campaign, perhaps, as Christopher Hitchens and others argue, they stem from a perception that the senator is rooting for disaster in Iraq to revive his hopes. This line of analysis pinpoints a certain schadenfreude evident in the Kerry campaign's depiction of the horrific beheadings and car bombings lately plaguing Iraq, and in the denigration of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's recent visit to Washington.

Still, however disquieting the perception that the Democrats wish grave evil to befall Iraq, it is surely an incorrect perception, and the vast majority of voters realize that Kerry and company care to see only success in our endeavors abroad.

So why, then, aside from these largely ad hominem explanations, has Kerry's new approach generated such an anemic response? Because his prescriptions for Iraq -- acknowledged even by Lizza to be weak -- are either superfluous, quixotic, or wrong, and because voters view them as such.

First, much of what Kerry called for is already being implemented. The coalition has made significant, if halting, progress in training troops, restoring vital services, and preparing for voter registration next month. While it is arguable that monies should be disbursed, and armed forces trained, more rapidly, there are equally compelling reasons for ensuring that reconstruction money winds up in the right hands and that Iraqi troops receive extensive preparation for the serious challenges they face. The election will not likely turn on the bureaucratic details of requisition requests and training directives.

In addition, President Bush sought and obtained a Security Council resolution in June that elicited material support for Iraq from UN member states. Bush followed this up last week with a direct appeal to the General Assembly. Very little help has been forthcoming from the international community, however, and Kerry maintains that only after a "fresh start" can the U.S. influence its allies to contribute substantially to Iraqi reconstruction.

Yet nothing coming out of the mouths of Jacques Chirac or anyone else provides reason for optimism; regardless of who is elected in November, the U.S. appears to be limited to support from the present coalition. Kerry thus seems to be tilting at windmills by holding out hope that the international community will bail us out of a situation of our own making.

But finally, and most importantly, Kerry wrongly, if subtly, signaled that the U.S. would begin to draw down troops by next summer. To be fair, the senator stated in general in his address that he would do "whatever it takes, as long as it takes, to defeat our enemies." But Kerry appears willing to serve notice that, in his mind, things are going so badly in Iraq that the time is nearing for a gradual withdrawal.

This misguided message is a logical outgrowth of Kerry's now-crystallizing belief that the war in Iraq not only has distracted us from fighting Islamist terrorism but has even emboldened and inspired our enemies. But while he rightly observes that Iraq has become a "magnet" for international terrorists, he draws the wrong conclusion.

American forces have indeed been engaging a veritable All Star team of jihadists from across the globe, confederated loosely under the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. But our troops have nobly and adroitly been inflicting significant damage on the terrorists/insurgents; the Islamists' only real successes have come against civilian targets such as foreign contractors and Iraqi civil police.

Tragically, we have lost over 1,000 service members on Iraqi battlefields. But the jihadists have in no significant way achieved success in their objectives.

Instead, as Bush has repeatedly reminded Americans, it is far better that we engage the terrorists openly in military conflict than that they take the battle to our population centers. And this is what the American public appears to realize: regardless of one's opinion about whether we should have initiated the Iraq war, our forces are currently battling Islamist terrorists, and we are slowly winning. Even to those who believe that the invasion of Iraq was not at its outset related to the War on Terror, it is now. Backing down from this challenge will only indicate unwillingness to stand on principle.

For this reason, suggesting that we set an exit date for starting to remove our forces, along with contending that fighting insurgents in Iraq is distinct from battling militant Islam, is simply wrong. The American people, particularly the swing voters both candidates are courting, view the substance of Kerry's message as misguided and, accordingly, have not reacted to it with any measure of enthusiasm.

During the debate, Kerry sought to clarify his plan for returning troops to American shores as contingent on support from allies and a successful reconstruction. Still, announcing a withdrawal even as a best-case scenario is rather troubling.

Perhaps, then, it would have been wiser for the senator to have stuck with his original, and much maligned, approach: precious ambiguity when it comes to Iraq.

Michael M. Rosen, a TCS contributor, is an attorney in San Diego.


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