With the country evenly divided, George W. Bush and John Kerry are following different game plans for this election. That's most clearly evident on Iraq.
Bush is playing to his base, just as President Reagan did in 1982, when there was a lot of bad news about the economy. Reagan rallied the GOP base with a cry to "stay the course!" How is President Bush responding to all of the bad news coming out of Iraq? At his April 13 news conference, he said, "My message today to those in Iraq is, we'll stay the course. We'll complete the job."
Kerry's strategy on Iraq is to reach out to swing voters. They're the ones who think that the United States was right to go to war with Iraq but that the Bush administration isn't conducting the war properly. The most recent Time/CNN poll indicates that a majority of Americans think attacking Iraq was the right thing to do (53 percent to 41 percent) but that the Bush administration does not have a clear, well-thought-out plan in Iraq (51 percent to 43 percent).
Kerry claims he does have a plan. "There is a smarter way to accomplish this mission than this president is pursuing," Kerry said last week. Kerry is more or less trapped in that strategy because he voted to authorize going to war. He's committed to making it work. How? By bringing in other countries to help. "You do it by reaching out to the world community adequately, to bring other people to the table to share this burden," Kerry said.
That stance puts him at odds with many on the Left who are ready to abandon the effort. Kerry was confronted in New York by a critic who said, "The United States, in my view, was on the wrong side. They have justice on the side of the uprising. You have said, 'Stay the course.' "
He has indeed. During the February 26 Democratic debate, Kerry said, "The impact of leaving now on the war on terror, on the Middle East, would be disastrous." And on April 14, he said, "I don't believe in a cut-and-run philosophy."
What exactly would Kerry do differently? He says he would send more troops, if they're needed. But so does Bush: "If additional forces are needed, I will send them."
Kerry sees American occupation as the problem. He told a college audience, "If you were to ask any student in college, first year of foreign policy, 'Do you think it's a good idea for the United States of America, almost alone, to occupy a Middle Eastern nation,' what do you think the answer would be?"
Bush sees the occupation as a problem, too. "They're not happy they're occupied," he said of the Iraqis. "I wouldn't be happy if I were occupied, either." He repeated his commitment to end the occupation on June 30. "As a proud, independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation. And neither does America," Bush said. The president insists that American forces would stay on after the handoff to provide security—and so does Kerry.
Kerry says he wants the United Nations to take over the political process in Iraq: "The course I have proposed is to turn over to the U.N. the full responsibility for the transformation of the government and for the reconstruction."
Bush is not exactly hostile to the idea of more U.N. involvement. In fact, when he was asked to whom the United States would be handing over power in Iraq on June 30, he said that the answer was up to the U.N. envoy: "He's figuring out the nature of the entity we'll be handing sovereignty over [to]."
Will Kerry's unwillingness to offer a clear, sharp alternative to Bush on Iraq put him at a disadvantage? Not necessarily. Many voters unhappy with Bush's policy are looking for someone who can set things right. Back in 1952, there was broad dissatisfaction with the war in Korea. Dwight Eisenhower simply said, "I will go to Korea," if elected president. And he did. In 1968, there was broad dissatisfaction with the war in Vietnam. Many voters believed Richard Nixon's promise that he had a secret plan to end the war.
Now, by offering a cautious alternative, Kerry is running a risk. He could alienate his Democratic base. His fellow Massachusetts senator, Edward Kennedy, recently condemned Bush's Iraq policy in no uncertain terms: "Iraq is George Bush's Vietnam." But Kerry, who protested the Vietnam War, says, "It's not Vietnam yet. And I underscore 'yet.' "
Kerry says he could keep Iraq from turning into Vietnam by making the U.S. effort there work. "The way you keep this from ever getting close to anything like a Vietnam [is] by maximizing the capacity for success," Kerry added.
A lot of Democrats may not be interested in supporting a candidate who promises to turn Bush's Iraq policy into a "success." Is there anyone they can turn to? Yes—a candidate who offered this thinly veiled warning to Democrats earlier this year: "If they persist in supporting a further quagmire war in Iraq without end ... if they side with President Bush, they will be criticized. But I don't think they're going to." If the news from Iraq gets worse, a powerful anti-war movement could emerge and transform Ralph Nader into a candidate with a cause.