The political suicide of John Kerry

The campaign of Senator John F. Kerry appears to have imploded. With almost two months left before the presidential election on Nov. 2, U.S. President George W. Bush is poised to win an election in which, given his extraordinary record of domestic and international failure, he should certainly have been defeated.

Contrary to conventional wisdom in the American media, Kerry stands on the brink of failure not because of the Republican attacks against him, but because of his own incomprehensible strategic blunders.

This is not to say that the spectacularly dishonest television campaign falsely impugning Kerry’s Vietnam War record – spurred by a thinly veiled Bush campaign front group preposterously named “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” – has had no effect. Such negative campaigning, particularly when the lie being told is so massive that the public cannot imagine anyone being brazen enough to invent it out of whole cloth, has a proven record in American politics. But Democrats can, and indeed have, fought back effectively against these charges, and most voters are not particularly interested in 35-year-old Vietnam-related issues.

The brilliantly staged but vicious Republican National Convention was certainly much more impressive than the Democratic convention a few weeks earlier. It played well to the party base, but the thundering of the self-hating Democrat Senator Zell Miller, the keynote speaker, was not the stuff that turns elections.

Compared to Kerry’s own strategic miscalculations, the Republicans have been a minor problem for the Democratic candidate. What really occurred during August that decisively shifted the momentum in favor of the president was Kerry’s own unfathomable decision to cede to Bush the major issue on which this campaign, and the incumbent’s record, will be judged: the war in Iraq.

Before August, Bush was incredibly vulnerable on Iraq. A majority of Americans considers the war to have been a mistake, resistance to the occupation is intensifying, and virtually everybody concedes that the two reasons the administration gave for the invasion – Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and the supposed alliance between the regime of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda – were based entirely on deception, or were illusory.

Hammering Bush on this ill-advised adventure must lie at the heart of any successful challenge of his record. The difficulty is that Kerry voted for the Senate resolution giving the administration the authority to use force in Iraq.

However, Kerry could have used his own vote to emphasize the degree to which the administration manipulated, exaggerated and falsified existing intelligence to misrepresent Iraq as a threat to the United States. He could have taken the issue of his vote for a war he now criticizes and, instead of allowing it to be used by Republicans as evidence of his fickleness and inconsistency, made it the centerpiece of an attack on the administration’s deceptiveness or incompetence.

Kerry should have spent August repeating: “Mr. Bush, I voted for that resolution on the basis of what you and your subordinates were telling the Congress and the country. We now know that the information you gave us was false. Mr. Bush, if you knew it was false, you deliberately deceived us all. If you did not know, then you and your team are incompetent in the extreme, and you must go before you blunder your way into further disastrous and unnecessary conflicts. Mr. Bush, you are either a liar or a fool, and thousands of people have died as a consequence.”

Kerry, instead of mounting this kind of vigorous offensive on the blundering in Iraq, made the fateful error of, in effect, conceding the issue entirely. On numerous occasions in August, the Democratic candidate confessed that if he knew then what he knows now, he would still have voted for the war authorization resolution. However, the coup de grace was delivered by Kerry’s unqualified foreign policy spokesman James Rubin, who told the press that the candidate would have “in all probability” invaded Iraq himself. Rubin later clarified that he “never should have said the phrase ‘in all probability.'”

The Kerry team has become completely entangled in its gnarled inconsistencies on Iraq, like a bull trapped in razor wire – every effort to extricate itself has only trapped it more tightly while opening fresh wounds. Unable to successfully engage Bush on the major issue of the campaign, Kerry is now going to try to shift the debate away from national security issues to a domestic agenda under the rubric: “A stronger America begins at home.”

Relying on those opinion polls showing Americans are most concerned about economic issues, the Democrats have decided not to put up a serious fight over Iraq, but to try to make the election about jobs. This is cowardly, unprincipled and an almost certain recipe for defeat.

Since there will be at least two major televised debates before the November voting, Kerry will have some opportunity to climb out of the formidable hole which he has dug for himself. But given the familiar divisions between Democrats and Republicans on economic policy, and the extraordinary incoherence and contradictions of Kerry’s foreign policy pronouncements, even as poor a debater as Bush ought to be able, at the very least, to hold his own.

There was a disturbing whiff of demagoguery about the Republican National Convention, but the mocking chant of “flip-flop, flip-flop, flip-flop” perfectly characterized Kerry’s political self-immolation at the alter of Iraq.