Saturday, October 30, 2004

Why Can't We Love Kerry?

I have a confession to make. I actually like Kerry.

There, I've said it. I've read so much about people who are reluctant to vote for Kerry, people who think Kerry will be a disaster, people who are holding their nose at the lesser of two evils, etc. etc. Yet I actually like Kerry. I would have voted for him in the primaries (if the primaries had mattered in New Jersey). And I haven't yet read anything on a blog that praises Kerry - just criticism, carping, etc. etc. So, for those of you who are wondering if you can work up any enthusiasm at all for this man, here is my list of reasons why I like Kerry, why he was my candidate from the beginning (over Dean and Edwards and Clark) and why I think he would be a fantastic President.

First, no one is perfect, so let's get the nit-picking out of the way. Yes, he can sometimes say in forty-five words what is best expressed in two. (Even his campaign team teases him on this.) Yes, he sometimes looks like the old man in the tree. And yes, he can be a bit of a wonk when what is called for is political poetry - or vice versa, and lapse into platitude when we need an astute critique. And yes (and I'll get into this more below), he was strategically late in forcefully getting out his position on Iraq and has been playing catch-up to Karl Rove on this ever since. Would I vote for a John McCain or Barack Obama over Kerry if either of those men were ever at the top of their ticket? Probably - but those are dream scenarios that we would likely never see. I know Kerry's not the salvation. He's just a man who happens to be in the U.S. Congress. But I think that, at least compared to all the other choices we could have been faced with this election, we can be pretty excited to have a man like him as President.

Secondly, I guess I should get my political leanings out of the way. If you must put me anywhere on the spectrum (and I feel sometimes that I really defy this view, but why not), I think you'd have to say that I'm center-left. Maybe libertarian. Social-liberal-economic-conservative. I sometimes dismay my liberal friends and I certainly can infuriate my conservative ones. I admit, I've never once in my life voted for a Republican President (with the exception of Nixon in '72 - but I was in fourth grade at the time, so it was just a provisional ballot). But I think I would if they ever put forward a candidate that wasn't held hostage to the Religious Right. And I've voted for many more Republican New York mayors in my life than Democrats.

So now that that's disclosed, let's get down to what there is to like about this man Kerry, and why you can feel good voting for him, no matter your political affiliation.

1. Most criticism of Kerry focuses on his anti-war history, his vote against the first Gulf war, and his qualifications of the current war. They paint Kerry as anti-war and reluctant to pull the trigger. But Kerry isn't pro-war or anti-war. He's pro defending this country using common sense. The key is to listen to what Kerry has said in these sessions.

a) When he spoke against Viet Nam, he had come back from war and personally witnessed disturbing acts against civilians in a muddled, complicated theater of war. The war had grown immensely unpopular. Yet he didn't shirk duty. He did what was required of him and then spoke his consciousness in an effort to correct policy. This is the hallmark of a young man who both respected service and respected the responsibility of his conscious. Compare this with George W. Bush's service and I think you have a difference of character that is stark. As young men, neither Bush nor Kerry would be making decisions about whether our country should go to war. But they did make personal decisions about responsibility and ethics, and Kerry's ethics here are about as admirable I think as you can get from anyone in politics. He may have said things hurtful to other veterans, but from what I've read and seen of these remarks, they are certainly more mild and statesmanlike than those of other activists and protestors of the time - and beat in a country mile what W. Bush was doing at the time, which was puking drunk in a parking lot while avoiding his national guard duty.

b) About Gulf War 1, Kerry voted against going to war "at that time." His comments were that "we are rushing to war when we have not yet exhausted avenues to remove Saddam from Kuwait." I do not take this to mean that Kerry was expressing a reserve at sacrificing lives because all war is bad. Yes, Kerry did use some language in defending his explanation that referred to avoiding the same tragedies as in Viet Nam, and yes, in today's climate that can strike us as perhaps overapplying the lessons of one conflict in the face of another (but don't try to tell me that Bush isn't guilty of precisely the same sin in comparing Iraq to the liberation of Europe in WWII). But that language, I believe, was an unfortunate choice that only looks bad in a situation now when we are facing a direct threat, and in fact was only a small part of his assessment. I take the majority of his comments about his vote to be a strategic assessment of geopolitics, of the best way to confront Saddam, and the differences between staging an invasion AT THAT PARTICULAR MOMENT and looking to push Saddam out by other means. You must remember many things here - 1) We had put Saddam in power and we were backing Saddam's army. 2) Bush I's ambassador to Iraq had actually tacitly encouraged Saddam to enter Kuwait. 3) As Powell and Rumsfeld knew, any military action on Iraq would require a sustained military base of operations in the midst of radical Islamic undemocratic regime. 4) There were, undoubtedly, other ways of getting Saddam out of Kuwait that were worth a try. Invading and setting up a permanent base in Saudi Arabia was a recipe for the rise of Anti-American terrorism, precisely what we are reaping now (and I might add, particularly since we didn't finish the job and remove Saddam at the time). It might have been a last resort, but Kerry's only point with his vote here was that we were choosing the option of last resort first - and I think that it's very possible he could have been right in his assessment (we'll of course never know).

c) The next war vote of contention: Kerry voted for giving Bush the *authority* to go about Gulf War II. Had he changed his mind? Was it politics? Dean and other Dems would not have cast that vote, but Kerry did, and I believe this was the correct vote, even if Kerry now critizes Bush for abusing the authority he was given (a completely consistent critique). You can't equate Gulf 1 and Gulf 2 as if the political scenario between these two is exactly the same or even as if the two votes were on the same matter (one was for approving a determined action, the other for giving the President pre-approval for a yet-to-be determined action). And on the ground, the reality is different in 2002. This time, we WERE conceivably at the last resort. And Kerry is a man who has consistently refused to be boxed into a political corner in dertmining which military action to support. He leaves his options open. This is exactly what we need to prosecute the war we now find ourselves in (certainly not pig-headed arrogance masquerading as strength). I believe that Kerry also knew that containing Saddam required that the stick of potential war have the full force required from this vote. It was also a vote in support of Presidential power. If you listen to Kerry's remarks on this, he says precisely that the President needs to have the authority to wage war as needed and to make threats that have the full believability of being backed up. Kerry is basically saying that ANY President must be willing to pull the trigger - that is what this vote means and I think it is very clear from this that Kerry IS a trigger puller (notwithstanding the goose-hunt photo op).

(I should say at this point that I do agree with some of the criticism of Democratic strategy to place all of Kerry's appeal in this regard on his Viet Nam fighting history. That is really no argument at all - plenty of Presidents who were never in a war could very well defend the country and push the big red button if they needed to. And it opened him up to precisely the Swift Boat attacks on his character rather than on his policy stances. I wish instead that Kerry had simply come out and said that the moment he got in office, we would conduct his own war on terrorism. But that STRATEGICALLY, his war would not go through Iraq but through the heart of Islamic fundamentalism. That has been his policy and it is too bad he hasn't been able to state that more clearly. I don't think it is so much a rhetorical style problem of Kerry's (that is part of it - he does sometime wander, when he is tired) -I think it was more of a campaign blunder on the part of Kerry's earlier handlers, whom he has since replaced).

And on what to do next in Iraq, Kerry's position is pretty much Bush's. But only because Bush moved closer to Kerry on the need for UN oversite of elections. I was never a Deaniac. I believe in Powell's Pottery Barn dictum - we broke it, we bought it. The question is, do we really have the resources to pull this off on our own, without sending our own economy into a tailspin? If you want to know who is likely to have more success building a coalition to come in and help us out, it's not going to be Bush. In Friday's Times, Germany and others are already sending signals that a Kerry administration would be able to twist their arms to join the party. Imagine having a trans-Atlantic coalition determined to fight terrorism and see through Democracy in Iraq? That's inspirational. The Bush Administration can only play one note: fear and loathing. We've exhausted that. Changing the emotional tenor of the war, while still prosecuting the war, has been Kerry's consistent position, and I can't see how that's not a vision to celebrate.

2. All of this has been pretty long because I believe that the foreign policy issue is THE issue in this election. When Bush came to power, his lack of any experience whatsoever abroad was certainly suspect. Oddly, I was at first comforted a bit by the team of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and Powell, thinking that at least they had some experience in world matters. Little did anyone expect 9/11, the sidelining of both the Powell doctrine of fighting to win as well as 200 years of American human rights standards, and an ideological fatwa that would turn a national tragedy into an excuse to go on bender to remake the world come hell or high water. And in the end, the Administration has cornered itself after all into a "my way or the highway" attitude that, whether or not it makes us more or less secure, certainly makes us more isolated, fearful, and weak. And I think that Kerry's intelligence, proven courage under fire, and political savvy is precisely the thing that can help reverse that.

But it is not just a matter of choosing between a "fuck you, world" or a "let's play together" attitude, or who will more vigorously hunt down Bin Laden. Either man is going to be limited by realities on the ground. But having an understanding of your objective is the only thing that will make success even possible. I believe that Kerry understands the underlying logic of terrorism better than either Bush or anyone else the Dems had to offer. Even better, perhaps, than Clark (who was my original choice). But Clark's view, I think, is ultimately limited to military strategy. Kerry is right to say that fighting terrorism is a multi-pronged effort in which diplomacy, police work, and military might all work hand in hand. In fact, this was the Bush dictum too right after Sept. 11th. They've abandoned that dictum in search of a re-election and in slavish servitude to a discredited ideology. I think that's unconscionable.

3.Regarding health care. Kerry has a plan that I like. It is not socialized medicine, it is not a Hillary Clinton plan. It is a plan to extend benefits and to help our private system provide coverage better. We essentially have two options in health care: better care for fewer and fewer people (with there always being a chance that you could go from being one of those with care to one of those without), or worse care for more people. I think Kerry's plan balances these two poles nicely, while other Dems and Republicans would wash us up on one or another shoals. I am willing to give up a little bit of quality to have more security that I'll have health care at all - but I don't want us going from 1st world to socialized hack medicine either. Can Kerry fund the plan as much as he wants? Probably not. That's probably a good thing. He'll scale it back and fix it a little bit - better than nothing.

4. Regarding the economy. No contest. Rolling back the over 200K tax cut is a no brainer. Are we in a war or what? We're spending 150 billion a year on Iraq. Come on - a little reality check here, people. Has anyone ever heard of the fall of Rome? Four more years of this and there's a good chance of a catastrophic economic collapse. Where will all your trickle-down economics be then? Jobs going oversees...well, I personally see that trend starting to slow down, but as even Pat Buchanan says, there's no reason to be creating tax policy that ENCOURAGES looting our country's economic resources. We need to build industries, not export them. Some corrections on this just make sense. Certainly the campaign rhetoric on the Dem's side can sound protectionist, but none of that is Kerry's policy. He's bringing in a solid new-Democratic economic team, and I think it's exciting to think we could restart our economic engine with vim and vigor again, like we had in the nineties. Then we'll see deficit reduction AND prosperity.

5. The environment. Let's just take the long view on this for a moment. I sincerely believe that ten generations from now, people will look back on the early 21st century. And will they say, "that was the time they fought terrorism" or "that was when Democracy came to the Middle East" or even "that was a great advance in science" or "gay rights" or "return to values"? No. What they will say is, "that was the last generation to enjoy a beautiful, abundant, healthy green world...and they could have saved that world, but instead, those selfish bastards let us inherit a sewer."

That may be a bit dour. And certainly no one can be blamed for being a little more concerned about being incinerated in a nuke or riddled with Anthrax than whether or not sea levels rise ten generations from now. But the environment is the legacy that this generation is entrusted with. If there is one positive contribution we can make to preserve it, we ought to.

For me, that's the sum of it. Chart out whatever numbers and statistics you will. I certainly do not believe that the current administration cares, or cares to even try, to address the environment, with the possible exception of finding more ways to exploit it for our short-term gain. Kerry, I believe, does care what kind of environmental legacy we leave. Sign Kyoto, don't sign Kyoto - that's not the issue for me. That's just the details. For me, the issue is whether you understand the long view and have the cojones to shove aside some of your immediate self-satisfaction to put it on your agenda. You either do or you don't. Kerry does. Bush doesn't. That's all there is to that.

6. Regarding Ideology. Kerry worked across the isle with McCain to close the book on Vietnam POWs. I admire Kerry's reaching out to moderate Repubs and his flexibility to place thought over ideology. Certainly one must flush the current Administration on this regard. A Hillary or Dean candidate on the Dem side wouldn't give me much faith in building a broad middle consensus either. Kerry does, and I like that.

7. Character. I just like Kerry. I think he is intelligent and forceful. A great talker when he's rested and...I know this sounds counter-intuitive - but I find him personable. This whole flip-flop thing is a complete campaign media fabrication, so I discount it completely. In fact, I find it disturbing whenever I read a Republican blog or a New York Times reporter mentioning it. It's like listening to droids on Star Wars being hypnotized by Obi Wan Kanobi. You can criticize Kerry for many things (his appearance on the Daily Show was a complete snooze, for instance), but not that. The guy is reassuring and has a very definitive moral center. Sure, he's more of a politician than someone like Clark. I think that is Senatorial syndrome. It would actually be nice to have a President who can work with the Senate, even an opposition Senate, to get critical legislation passed that will protect this country from terrorism and get people flu shots. And he may not have the zing of Clinton, but I believe he can keep his pecker in his pants. In my mind, that's a plus in a President.

[Teresa...well, that's a different matter. Ever had a good friend whose girl you found a bit of a (how to put this about 'ditz-pill'?). Yes, well, the best thing to do with such a friend is schedule things like bowling and baseball watching, where the women won't come along. Everything I've seen about Teresa - and I'll admit, it all only totals maybe three hours - suggests to me a self-absorbed and out-of-touch heiress who couldn't reason her way out of a paper bag. But I've gotten no hint from Kerry that he's planning a 'co-Presidency' with Teresa, so I'm pretty comfortable that she'll be as much of a non-entity in the new administration as Laura Bush has been in this one.]

8. What else is there? Is there any other issue of import? Of course: the culture war. Supreme Court. Gay rights. Abortion. Stem cells. In my mind, none of these issues is determined by the President - it's about the party that controls the White House. As long as Republicans control Penn. Ave., we're going to see gay-baiting and bible thumping from the far right. I'm sorry if that disgusts me but it does. The only Republicans I would ever trust to withstand such a right-wing assault would be Powell or McCain. (I'm sorry, Giuliani, but you've lost my faith.) So on these issues, any Republican just has a big liability with me trying to lug that Republican Radical-Right Platform around on his back. If I truly believed Kerry was a no-go on these other issues I'd consider the Republican. But Kerry excites me and if as a bonus we can put the Bible-thumpers in a cave and block the door for the next four years, I'm all for it.

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Common Mistakes is my blog for sending comments to friends, family, and the public. Mostly politics and cultural criticism, I suspect, but really not limited to any specific subject. The point of view is simply my own.