ED KOCH identifies himself with pride as a lifelong Democrat. The former New York City councilman, congressman, and three-term mayor says his values have always been those of the broad Democratic center -- the values of FDR and Harry Truman, of Hubert Humphrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He disdains the Republican worldview as cold and unfeeling -- "I made it on my own, and you should, too." The Democratic philosophy, by contrast, he sums up as: "If you need a helping hand, we'll provide it." No surprise, then, that Koch disagrees with George W. Bush on just about every domestic issue, from taxes to marriage to prescription drugs.
But he's voting for him in November.
"I've never before supported a Republican for president," Koch told me last week. "But I'm doing so this time because of the one issue that trumps everything else: international terrorism. In my judgment, the Democratic Party just doesn't have the stomach to stand up to the terrorists. But Bush is a fighter."
Koch was surprised and impressed by Bush's resolve after Sept. 11. "He announced the Bush Doctrine -- he said we would go after the terrorists and the countries that harbor them. And he's kept his word." Koch doubts that the leadership of his own party could have mustered the grit to topple the Taliban or drive Saddam Hussein from power, let alone to press on in what is going to be a long and grinding conflict.
"Already, most of the world is caving. If you didn't have Bush standing there, you'd have everybody following Spain and the Philippines" in retreat, he says, trying to appease the terrorists instead of fighting them.
How much of his party does Koch speak for? We won't know for sure until Election Day, when exit polls help gauge how many Democrats crossed party lines to support Bush. But Koch knows he's not the only Democrat to regard the war against militant Islam as the most critical issue of the campaign. And he doesn't think he was the only one dismayed by what he saw at the Democratic convention in July.
From Michael Moore's seat of honor next to Jimmy Carter, to the thunderous applause that greeted Howard Dean, to the 9 out of 10 delegates who want to pull the plug on Iraq, the convention exposed the radical antiwar mindset that dominates the Democratic Party leadership.
But hasn't Kerry pledged to stay in Iraq and to go after the terrorists? "That's what he says to appeal to moderates and conservatives during the campaign," Koch replies. But the party activists who nominated him would compel him to back down once he was in office. The people now running the Democratic Party want no part of the war, and "when the chips are down, Kerry will do what they want."
It bears repeating: This is a faithful Democrat talking. And it is as a faithful Democrat that Koch so sharply resists his party's left wing. ("The radicals don't like me," he once wrote. "And they have good reason, because I despise them.") Though he calls himself a "liberal with sanity," he governed the largest city in America as a decided centrist. Twice he was reelected in massive landslides. New Yorkers came to trust Koch's instincts and judgment because they resonated so closely with their own.
And what those instincts and common sense tell Koch today is that nothing matters more than beating back the threat from Islamic terrorists. "I want a president who is willing to go after them before they have a chance to kill us," he says. "Party affiliation is an important consideration," but it's not more important than winning the war.
In his 1984 autobiography, "Mayor," Koch tells of his appearance before the Republican Party's platform committee in 1980.
"I was the first Democratic mayor to do so in anyone's memory. And it caused a stir." For the better part of an hour, Koch gave the Republicans his views on some of the era's most intractable municipal issues, including unfunded federal mandates, block grants, and the heavy burden of Medicaid.
"They were with me on all of these items," Koch recalled -- so much so that when the session ended, GOP Chairman Bill Brock half-jokingly invited him to join the Republican Party. "I respectfully decline," Koch answered.
"Then we all went outside for pictures. There I was asked by a reporter, `Mr. Mayor, isn't this political treason?'
"I said, `If this be treason, make the most of it. But it ain't.' "
It ain't treason this time either. In 1980, Koch's top priority was the fiscal security of New York City. In 2004, it is the national security of the United States. Americans are at war with fanatical enemies, and above all else, they need a commander-in-chief who can face those enemies without flinching.
Koch's political home remains where it has always been -- in the party of FDR and Truman, Humphrey and Moynihan. He is a loyal Democrat. But as JFK once said, sometimes party loyalty asks too much.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.