John Kerry tried very hard to project strength and consistency during the first presidential debate. And he got the atmospherics right. After a shaky start, he spoke with a firm voice, and stood with a confident bearing. He had some good soundbites, too. He had anticipated Bush’s attack over voting for and against the $87 billion for Iraq. “Well, you know, when I talked about the $87 billion, I made a mistake in how I talk about the war. But the president made a mistake in invading Iraq. Which is worse?” The staffer who drafted that line is undoubtedly a hero in the Kerry camp.
Nevertheless, the debate transcript undercuts the debate imagery. Contradictions in his remarks will provide ammunition for Bush’s opposition researchers.
In Iraq, he said. Americans should share more of the burden with other countries and with the Iraqis themselves. He said he would “do what’s necessary to make it so America isn’t doing this alone.” Therefore, the Kerry Doctrine consists of minimizing American troop commitments by maximizing international cooperation. Right?
Not necessarily. On Afghanistan, he was a born-again unilateralist. He faulted Bush for failing to get Osama bin Laden during the overthrow of the Taliban. “But we didn’t use American forces, the best trained in the world, to go kill him. The president relied on Afghan warlords and he outsourced that job too. That’s wrong.” In other words, we should have gone it alone.
If outsourcing was bad in Afghanistan, why is it good in Iraq? Does he really think that the Belgians would have caught Saddam?
He kept referring to the Iraq war as a “mistake.” Jim Lehrer asked him a logical question: “Are Americans now dying in Iraq for a mistake?” His answered: “No, and they don’t have to, providing we have the leadership that we put–that I’m offering.” It’s hard to see what he could have meant. Was he saying that the war was not a mistake after all? Or that it would cease to be a mistake if he became president?
He certainly was not eager to keep a lot of troops there. “And our goal in my administration would be to get all of the troops out of there with a minimal amount you need for training and logistics.”
Yet just as viewers pictured Americans boarding planes to leave that country, he said: “And we got weapons of mass destruction crossing the border every single day, and they’re blowing people up. And we don’t have enough troops there.” So he would send more troops?
Kerry’s aides will say that his remarks really are consistent if you look carefully enough at his nuances and qualifications. Maybe he’d be better off if he just quoted Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
–John J. Pitney Jr. is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.