The final day in Boston was illustrative at several levels, principal of them that Senator Kerry’s brilliantly planned launch proposes to focus on the simple matter of his relative desirability. There was no bill of indictment against George Bush, but the speeches rested on common assumptions. They are that Mr. Bush is a failed leader, a thoughtless strategist, a reckless general, and a careless custodian of the United States Constitution.
All of thinking America knows that national conventions are substantially about political theater. They do not convene to discharge exegetical functions. Mr. Kerry was glib about his commitment as commander in chief to use force if necessary, which is on the order of saying that, if necessary, you will guard against gravity. Mr. Kerry is not a pacifist and nobody has accused him of being one, so that the questions up for focus have to do with whether Mr. Bush responded intelligently to the crisis of 9/11. If we had gone to Boston to put all the pieces on the table which would permit comprehensive judgments on the strategic insights of Kerry, time would have been given to his frequent votes in the Senate against military expenditures, his refusal to back the Strategic Defense Initiative, and of course his ambivalent votes on Iraq: Go ahead, but don’t ask me to pay the bills.
It wasn’t that kind of show at all. He was introduced some time after ten, and, well before that, we began to hear about his family and about his exploits. Some viewers might have been excused a silent expression of gratitude that he has only two families, not three. If there had been another set of daughters or sons, the whole schedule would have needed reworking. And this same silent prayer might have expressed gratitude that he had fought on only one war front. The testimonials to his fine behavior were heartfelt but they were also copious, reminding the audience of what was to be stressed at the convention, which was other things than what specifically to do to ingratiate ourselves with Paris and Berlin and Moscow in order to make our efforts in the Middle East multilateral, and what exactly is the new Congress expected to do by way of reallocating income between those who earn it and the government that desires to spend it.
George Bush is on the road already, and it is projected that as he travels east, and the challenger travels west, their roads will actually cross in Pittsburgh. Which brings to mind the observation of Senator Lieberman in Boston. Asked if that Thursday night was the most important event on the Democratic political calendar, he replied that, no, more important would be the debates. There, he was saying in effect, the public would be hearing no testimonials to heroic conduct, nor tales of hamsters revived, but hard questions both about what might have been, and about what might yet be.
Senator Kerry is well equipped to ask hard questions about the conduct of the Iraq war, but he will need at the same time to say whether he believes the United States should care what form of government survives in Iraq. There was not a word in the big speech about “democracy,” and that is a proper subject for a major exchange of views. Is our commitment to Iraq, once undertaken, properly discharged by simply providing the firepower to defeat the insurgents? What should U.S. commitments be, if any, toward the extension of self-government in Iraq? And what concessions should be made to attract the cooperation of our putative allies in Europe? What would a President Kerry do–what policies would he undertake–to repair the fracture he criticizes so ardently?
And, one might add, so eloquently, in a speech which stands out as political oratory, well composed, well delivered, and apparently home-grown. But these gifts, of course, are different from those required in debate. Senator Edwards is skilled in debate, and Joe Lieberman was well situated to remember his own encounter with Dick Cheney in 2000. It is by no means predictable that the golden boy of special pleading in a courtroom will translate to a juggernaut mowing down a vice president who has served as secretary of defense and as White House chief of staff.
So that is the next stop, and all those gifts cultivated for a political convention will need reworking to serve in a debate, man to man.