So the results are in. After shellacking Dean in Iowa, Kerry once again won a very convincing victory in New Hampshire. Democrats who made up their minds last year tended to favor Dean, while those who made up their minds in the last four weeks favored Kerry; those who voted based on the issues favored Dean, while those who voted based on “electability” favored Kerry.
Some cast this as a matter of Kerry’s greater experience in Washington, dealing with national and international issues. Much more important, however, is the elephant in the room that Democratic strategists alternately discuss feverishly and ignore: the significance of Iraq in the upcoming election.
Since before the war, I have maintained that Iraq will be the crucial issue in the election, and the one that it is most important for the Democrats to try to get right if they want to win. Counterposed against this was the argument that, even though there is widespread discontent over the war, those who oppose it are a minority, and that anyway Americans will vote on jobs and health-care, the issues that affect them most proximately. And, of course, in polls on the relative significance of issues, Iraq consistently comes in third behind jobs and health-care; a solid third that shows a persistence of interest in the issue, but notably behind the first two.
Until they were blindsided by the Dean phenomenon, the mainstream Democratic candidates were all running on the strategy of not allowing too much daylight between them and George W. Bush on Iraq while excoriating him on domestic issues; indeed, any other stance has been difficult given their votes on the Iraq resolution in October 2002. In the November 2003 issue of the American Prospect, Bill Clinton explicitly outlined this as the strategy necessary for the Democrats to win in 2004.
Superficially at least, the Kerry results seem to bear out all of this analysis. Dean, though he had plans on other issues, was defined as the antiwar candidate, and yet even voters who describe themselves as antiwar voted for Kerry over Dean.
I’m still unconvinced. There’s something I think the pundits are not paying attention to the main election campaign will be run against Bush, not against Kerry or Dean or Edwards. Karl Rove has already announced that foreign policy is what Bush will run on, and the attacks on the Democratic candidate will be merciless. Once the Bush campaign really starts and all that money kicks in, the political landscape will be transformed.
After that, the only thing I can predict is this: a Democratic candidate who has little intelligent to say about the war will be swallowed whole. If the candidate bases his objections, as many do now, on our not asking France to help pay for the war, he will be ridiculed. If he signs on completely, he will become irrelevant. Although Iraq is not the “biggest” issue in the campaign, measured in gross terms, Iraq will be the defining issue, the issue the Democratic candidate has to get right if he wants to have a chance of standing up to Bush’s overwhelming advantage in money, Bush’s shock troops in the Christian right, Bush’s profound influence over the broadcast money, and the fact that the economy will be kept roughly afloat by extremely low interest rates.
In fact, even looking at the New Hampshire results, you can notice that Dean arrested his scream-driven slide in the polls only by coming out newly combative and attacking Kerry on his vote for the Iraq resolution.
Kerry seems to have learned the wrong lesson from his two victories. After limbering up to the point where he actually denounced Reagan’s illegal war in Central America on a nationally televised debate, his New Hampshire victory speech took just the opposite tone: In the hardest moments of the past month, I depended on the same band of brothers that I depended on more than 30 years ago. We’re a little older, and a little grayer, but I’ll tell you this: we still know how to fight for our country. This is the same John Kerry who in 1971 delivered perhaps the finest speech ever given to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he said, among other things, “In our opinion and from our experience, there is nothing in South Vietnam which could happen that realistically threatens the United States of America..” He understood then that he and his fellow soldiers were not fighting for their country but for an immoral imperial foreign policy. If he had really learned the lessons of the 2000 and 2002 elections, he would post that speech right at the top of his website.
Dean seems initially to have learned the right lesson and is attacking Bush administration deception on WMD more vigorously. If he can bring himself to say that three-letter word “lie” and back it up with some of the copious evidence unearthed by so many, he might just be able to transform the presidential race.
Of course, no one is talking about the real horrors of the continuing occupation of Iraq, except for mentions of the U.S. casualty count, and that is not likely to change anytime soon.
In response to Kerry’s call to Democratic voters not to “send them a message” but rather to “send them a president,” Howard Dean has said his campaign is not about “changing presidents” but about “changing America.” It’s hard to see how he or any of his frontrunning fellows would do anything to change America except to roll it back to the halcyon days of 1999 and 2000, but the fact that he is using this rhetoric is worth noting. In that speech of 1971, where Kerry announced the formation of the Winter Soldiers, a group opposing the Vietnam War, he expressed the hope that his organization would help to make Vietnam the place “where America finally turned and where soldiers like us helped it in the turning.”
If Kerry went back and re-read his speech, perhaps he would realize that now is the time to go beyond wrapping himself in the flag of his participation in an immoral war and open a real debate on America’s role in the world. He has nothing to lose but a near-certain defeat; he has a presidency to gain.
RAHUL MAHAJAN is the publisher of Empire Notes and serves on the Administrative Committee of United for Peace and Justice, the nation’s largest antiwar coalition. His first book, “The New Crusade: America’s War on Terrorism,” has been called “mandatory reading for anyone who wants to get a handle on the war on terrorism,” and his most recent book, “Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond,” has been described as “essential for those who wish to continue to fight against empire.” He can be reached at email@example.com