The Positive Case for Kerry (Sort Of)

Never let it be said that I don’t take requests! The following is excerpted from an email I received from a highly respected reader who, in case he wishes to remain anonymous, I will simply refer to as GP:

Reading your political observations I am often reminded of my many years of high school and college debating experiences. It was always highly advantageous to present the negative side of a debate topic. Presenting the affirmative case required of us much more preparation and ingenuity. The reason is obvious: it is much easier to attack than to defend, to offer objections rather than pose positive plans or directions.

I think of this when I read your continuing attacks in Bush and those around him. Though I think some of your observations reflect a strong party line, I must add my great disappointment with many of the actions and decisions he has made. I have often observed that I think this may be the first election I sit out. . . but that leads me to . . .

wait for you to present a positive note (the affirmative side) on the Kerry-Edwards promises for the future. What contributions has he made in his 20 years in the Senate? Where is he at this moment on the future of our dealings with Iraq, medicare, social security? Just who is this man and what does he offer in a responsible fashion (please don’t promise me lower taxes and at the same time great new social expenditures)? I think the Democrats missed a great opportunity to offer a much stronger candidate than a person I can’t follow from one week to the next.

So, hearing your presentation of the negative case that has much with which I agree, I wait for the next issue of your political reflections on the affirmative side of the case.

First of all, I haven’t commented all that much about Kerry until now because I’m not super excited about him. I think he’s running a bad campaign, in two senses: One, his campaign has as many empty promises, heavily-finessed numbers, and misleading generalizations as every other political campaign, ever—this doesn’t set his apart, but it’s still cause for disappointment. Two, his campaign has lacked a strong voice; he hasn’t really communicated himself to the American people. He’s finally speaking the truth about Iraq, but waiting until now to do it makes him seem opportunistic—and it would carry a lot more weight if he had taken a strong stand against the war from the beginning.

My support for Kerry is, admittedly, partisan—that is to say, I believe that it’s better to have a Democrat than a Republican in the White House, all else being equal. Though I did bristle a little when I read: “some of your observations [i.e. attacks on Bush & Co.] reflect a strong party line . . .” Though I wouldn’t be voting for Bush anyway for partisan reasons, my vociferous opposition to him is rooted in the cataclysmic mishandling of the situation in Iraq, and the consequent weakening of the war on Al Qaeda. These failures have little if anything to do with traditional policy differences between the parties.

But this is supposed to be about Kerry. Let me address GP’s questions in turn:

  • “What contributions has he made in his 20 years in the Senate?”

    It seems like serving for a couple decades in the Senate and always being reelected by your constituency should count for a little something all by itself! And his investigative record—most notably his work uncovering the Reagan Administration’s seedy dealings with Nicaraguan Contras—should be plenty for anyone to hang their hat on. He lacks any high-profile legislation with his name on it, but that seems to me to be a function of life as a perpetual junior senator, coupled with contentment at working behind the scenes and supporting the legislation of others. The real problem here is that his campaign has decided to play up his Vietnam record and ignore his Senate service, which has left the Bush campaign free to characterize that service as they see fit.

    One of the Bush campaign’s biggest successes is getting the “flip-flopper” meme out there and making it stick—something that would at least have been harder to do if Kerry had just stood by his Senate record. For every time Kerry’s position has shifted with the political winds, there’s half a dozen times where he was taking a nuanced position on a complex issue. That sort of thing should be de rigeur for American policymakers, and is—the fact that it’s painted as a vice is one of the more ridiculous aspects of an already ridiculous campaign season.

  • “Where is he at this moment on the future of our dealings with Iraq . . .”

    Nowhere, which is exactly where we all are. There’s nowhere else to be. What I mean is: there are no good outcomes for Iraq, and no paths that will lead to good outcomes. The time to have handled the occupation properly is long past, and the time for not occupying in the first place is even longer past. Now we must all live with the consequences. Kerry’s position, such as it is, is to internationalize efforts to maintain peace there. I don’t think bringing NATO in will necessarily reduce the odds of civil war, but it will certainly take some pressure off the U.S. Though it’s not anything close to a fix, broader international involvement will help, on balance. When it comes to Kerry vs. Bush, only Kerry is going to be able to appeal for multilateral cooperation with any degree of credibility.

  • ”. . . medicare, social security?”

    Looking over the details of Kerry’s plans on his campaign website, I see some positive points—for example, an awareness that the Medicare drug bill passed last year was a fiasco, and an open stance on drug reimportation. On the other hand, his three “pillars” for strengthening Social Security are “Grow the Economy,” “Restore Fiscal Discipline,” and “Bipartisan Process”—all valid as far as they go, but they aren’t exactly robust, concrete policy suggestions. But I think it’s important to note that the positions and proposals he’s had on these issues have been there and been the same for quite a while. The phrasing of the question (“Where is he at this moment . . .”) implies that he’s been changing his mind a lot lately. Certainly he’s had a hard time communicating his views, but that’s a campaign problem, not a policy one.

    All in all, I agree with GP—I wish the Democrats had fielded a stronger candidate. Howard Dean could have spoken out much more forcefully and clearly on Iraq, and wouldn’t have run just another bland, focus-grouped-to-death campaign. But Kerry is good enough to be a strong alternative to Bush. In a time when national security involves a struggle against a decentralized, stateless foe, there are no easy answers, no black and white choices. Kerry is a canny career politician who’s accustomed to navigating complex policy issues and working with colleagues across the aisle. He’s no good at articulating nuanced positions, but he’s good at having them. That’s the kind of guy we want in the White House at this time. At any time.

    UPDATE: On that last point, have a look at Kerry’s speech on the Senate floor, October 9, 2002 (hat tip to Matthew Yglesias. ). It’s the one he made to explain his vote in favor of authorizing force in Iraq. It’s long and at times complicated, but it makes clear his willingness to use force coupled with his strong caution at going to war alone or without sufficient cause. It makes clear that he hasn’t flipped or flopped on the issue one bit, and, I must say, ups my respect for him by a few notches.