Continuing his quest to be more all over the map than the Grateful Dead in the band's heyday, John Kerry has offered yet another new position on the Iraq war. He’s for it—for now.
Uttering words no sane person ever predicted would pass through his lips, Kerry started his statement with, “I’ll answer it directly.” (Editor’s note: That quote is authentic. We couldn’t believe it either.)
President Bush had challenged his opponent to announce whether or not he would still authorize the war knowing what we know today. The rest of Kerry's response? “Yes, I would have voted for the authority. I believe it is the right authority for a president to have but I would have used that authority effectively.”
What does that mean, to use “authority effectively”? Is Saddam not sitting in a cell right now? Are not the Iraqi people free? Is Iraq not on the verge of its first-ever free election? Is there a more effective way to win a war?
For those keeping score at home, it has been a dizzying past few weeks. At the convention, he seemed to be against the war. But at least he was definitely a Vietnam vet.
Warming up for the big day, Kerry tested out a number of themes, some pro- and some anti-war. Speaking to the NAACP, Kerry blasted Bush for “needlessly going it alone” and even suggested that the war was fought over oil. The very next day, he appeared to endorse both unilateralism and preemptive strikes, though each pledge was married to carefully crafted caveats.
In Boston, Kerry talked tough about his willingness to defend America—he’s a Vietnam vet, didn’t you hear?—yet he dragged out his tired staple, “We’ll never go to war because we want to; we’ll only go to war because we have to,” and even trotted out the “going to war over oil” bit for good measure.
No need to delve into the full history of his hemming and hawing—from the voting to authorize war yet voting against funding the rebuilding afterward—as the record is fairly well-established at this point.
Some might predict that Kerry’s newfound hard-line position might mean that Iraq is now off the table. Well, it is for Kerry, but certainly not for Bush.
The President has one consistent position—albeit one that is not always clearly articulated—yet Kerry has so many that he needs to reach into his hat on any given night to see which previously stated stance he should embrace. Unless he chooses to manufacture a new one, as he did this week.
Kerry’s conundrum is that he has negligible pro-Kerry support. He has anti-Bush voters. That’s enough to keep him in the game, but that alone cannot—and will not—push him across the finish line come November.
Depending on which pollster you believe, somewhere between 42-46% of Americans absolutely, positively, will-not-under-any-circumstances, even if their heads were in a vise, vote for Bush. That’s a sizeable base with which to start. And it would seem that Kerry only needs to pick up a few points to win, and could even position himself for a romp.
Unfortunately for Kerry, he’s barely known by the electorate, yet at least 40% of voters could never pull the lever for him. But even if that figure were much lower, Kerry would still be in trouble.
Just ask Bob Dole.
Going up against a man who had already been responsible for a still-to-increase cottage industry of Regnery books and who had two years earlier been the main cause of his party losing control of Congress after 40 years, Dole should have been if great shape. Clinton was hated by the right, and Dole was an affable chap who never really riled any “anti-” sentiment.
Trouble is, Dole didn’t spark much sentiment of any kind.
And the Massachusetts liberal is, to borrow a phrase, “literally in the same boat.”
Proving that money cannot buy everything, the billionaire’s spouse has an utter lack of either humor or charm. Without a personality to attract supporters, Kerry is forced to garner votes through his policy positions. Which is where things get sticky.
Where does Kerry stand on Iraq? Depends on the day. On the overall war on terror, he spouts pleasant-sounding platitudes about getting more international cooperation and making better use of intelligence. But how? Not once has Kerry laid out a clear blueprint, nor should anyone expect one.
Counterintuitively, Kerry is worse for the wear for not having clawed his way to a primary victory. He was not battle-tested in the sense of scrapping for support through good old-fashioned stump speeches and street fighting. He won because he was the best-organized candidate who didn’t implode.
Kerry came out of the primaries a survivor, not a winner. And unless Bush crashes—spectacularly—in the next three months, Kerry won’t be one in November, either.
Joel Mowbray (email@example.com) is author of Dangerous Diplomacy: How the State Department Threatens America’s Security.