Politics & Policy

Dangerous Consistency

Unfortunately, John Kerry is no flip-flopper on defense.

The Republican campaign’s portrayal of John Kerry as a flip-flopper disturbs me. I don’t buy it. I think he is all too consistent–especially on national defense.

If you subtract one vote–the October 2002 resolution authorizing Bush to use force in Iraq–Kerry’s foreign-policy/national-security record looks depressingly consistent. He has always pursued what Churchill called (referring to British appeasement under Neville Chamberlain) a “vacillating pacifism,” but without the vacillation. In 1991, he voted against the coalition-fought global-tested Gulf War. For decades he consistently opposed weapons system after weapons system, in “merchant-of-death” rhetoric straight out of the 1930s. He consistently espoused the soft-power idealism of one who thinks his own country’s disarmament would serve as a good example for the world’s dictators and terrorists. And he has based his presidential campaign on the proposition that we ought to have given Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt.

How else to explain him? If he’s not a pacifistic appeaser, what the heck is he?

Two alternative explanations are possible.

Kerry may be just another “partisan opportunist” whose policy is determined by simple party interest. If a Democratic president does it, this Kerry supports it. If a Republican does the same thing, this Kerry opposes it (especially if the Dem gave it lip service while the Republican put it into action–think Clinton vs. Bush on Iraqi regime change). In other words, a MoveOn.org type of Democrat: committed to no principle but “Democrats good, Republicans bad.” (You may remember MoveOn.org as the folks who began with the proposition that sexual activities were no big deal (Clinton), and then moved on to campaign against a gubernatorial candidate–Schwarzenegger–for his sexual activities.)

Or Kerry may be a “leader” who is led by polls and focus groups. In this scenario, he was just listening to his pollsters in October 2002. They (and the whole party leadership) thought that Bush’s Iraq policy was popular, so they climbed aboard. (Lest anyone forget, part of the “rush to war” was the Senate Democrats’ desire to go on record on the popular side of this issue before the 2002 congressional elections–not that it helped them much.)

For wobbling pro-defense Democrats, the question remains: Which is the real John Kerry? Which Kerry might become president?

Is he John Kerry Chamberlain, the dyed-in-the-wool, principled pacifist appeaser? If so, there seems little reason to expect better results than the 1930s experiment.

Is he MoveOn.JohnKerry, the partisan opportunist? The problem is that such a role is possible only when you aren’t the one making the decisions. When you are in the captain’s seat, you can’t just oppose.

Some offer a hopeful theory here. Kerry the partisan opportunist would, once in power, blossom into a strong defender, as responsibility braces him to deal with the ugly realities he has ignored throughout his years of playing in the partisan sandbox. But this ever-so-hopeful “John-Boy-Kerry-grows-up” storyline ignores just how tepidly and ineffectively this war would be waged under a president whose heart isn’t in it.

But if this is the real Kerry–if there really is “no there there” at the core of his policy brain–then the Kerry in the White House is more likely to turn into…

…the focus-group president; the “leader” whose main concern is not giving his opponents any purchase on his popularity. In other words, John Kerry Clinton. Kosovo? Looks like we can get away with it, as long as it’s done from the air with no casualties. Rwandan genocide? Sorry, Tutsis, but the focus groups weren’t interested.

So which one is the real John Kerry? In part because I want to think well of the man, my money’s on Chamberlain. Better a principled pacifist than a partisan whose moral compass points only to D and R, or a politician happy to be blown about by the winds of public opinion.

But whatever the answer, America–and the world of which we find ourselves the temporary stewards–cannot run the risk of discovering it.

The other question, at least for Democrats, is this: How has our party fallen so low? From the world-shaking idealism of Wilson, to FDR’s commitment to freedom, to Truman’s grit and Kennedy’s call for the defense of freedom…to this. How?

“Hans Moleman” is a lifelong Democrat who prefers to remain anonymous. He has no relation to the Simpsons character by the same name. Any similarities are purely coincidental.

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