Humphrey Redux?

Like Humphrey in '68, Kerry is out of step with voters on an upopular war

By Jack Beatty

"Unity" is the regnant cliché about this convention and this party. The Democrats are "united" as rarely before. But in fact, there is dramatic division here—between the delegates and the candidate.

According to a Boston Globe poll, ninety-five percent of the delegates think the Iraq war was—is—"a mistake." John Kerry disagrees: he believes the war was not a mistake, nor was his vote to authorize it.  If he had been president, some of his statements imply, he would have gone to war too—just not "the way Bush did." In other words, candidate Kerry won't challenge what Bush did, but how he did it.

Kerry and the delegates also disagree about how long the U.S. should stay in Iraq. Forty-one percent of them want the troops out by the end of the year, or within eighteen months. Only two percent think the U.S. should stay from three to five years. Kerry appears to agree with that sliver of his party; the Democratic platform talks about staying until the job is done.

Kerry is not only out of step with his delegates; sixty percent of voters also view the war as a mistake. And a plurality want the U.S. out now, or within eighteen months.

A candidate out of step with his party and the country on the wisdom and course of an unpopular war? Who does that put you in mind of? Last night, on the NPR public affairs program On Point, Walter Shapiro, a political columnist for USA Today, compared Kerry to Hubert Humphrey, the Democratic nominee in 1968. But with this invidious difference: until the closing hours of the campaign (when it was too late), Vice President Humphrey backed the war policy of his own president, Lyndon Johnson. Kerry is backing the policy of the man he is running against.

Politically, this is unilateral disarmament. With the economy recovering, Iraq should be the Democrats' best issue. But not with Kerry as their nominee. Kerry is trying to appeal to voters who still support Bush's policy in Iraq; at the same time, dispensing the moonshine that the Europeans, at the magic words "President Kerry," will send their troops to Iraq so they can be blown up by car bombs just like ours, he is also trying to appeal to the plurality who want out soon. This is called having it both ways, as the Republicans will go broke explaining to undecided voters.

If the Republicans are smart—and they are, politically—they will make Kerry's Iraq record (for the war and against the $87 billion to pay for it; against the president on the tactics of the occupation, with the President on staying the course) a character issue.

And they will be right. John Kerry betrayed his reason for being in public life when he backed Bush's war. History had shaped him to stand up on the Senate floor and speak for the American dead in Vietnam—to say, "In their name, never again. Never again send young Americans to die in an unnecessary war. Never again, use lives as political cannon fodder. Never, again." Instead, having voted against Gulf War One and been burned politically, he cast the most political vote of his career—and the most shameful. "Send me," Bill Clinton has Kerry, who could have avoided service, saying when it came time to go to Vietnam. But on Iraq, Kerry said, "Send them." And soon one thousand will have died.

"How do you ask a soldier to be the last man to die for a mistake?" asked John Kerry, the conscience of the Vietnam generation, speaking over thirty years ago before the Senate Foreign Relations committee. "There are some things worth losing the presidency for," Hubert Humphrey declared in his acceptance speech in bloody Chicago. Humphrey meant he would not compromise on civil rights to exploit the white backlash that Richard Nixon stoked to victory that November. Perhaps the Humphrey-Kerry parallel is inexact after all.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2004/07/humphrey-redux/303435/