WASHINGTON -- President Bush's poll numbers bounced following last week's GOP convention, at which speaker after speaker vigorously defended the Administration's conduct of War on Terror and its decision to invade Iraq. The lesson: voters want a president with an aggressive stance on fighting terrorism. So why is John Kerry trying to sound like George McGovern?
Last week Kerry called Iraq "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" and said he would pull U.S. forces out in four years if he were president: "We want those troops home, and my goal would be to try to get them home in my first term."
Later he made a guns-vs.-butter argument, coming down on the side of the artery clogger: "I would not have made the wrong choices that now are forcing us to pay nearly the entire cost of this war -- 200 billion dollars that we're not investing in education, health care and job creation here at home." This is a 180-degree turn from last month, when Kerry answered a reporter's questions at the Grand Canyon. "Yes," he said, "I would have voted for the authority [to invade Iraq]. I believe it is the right authority for a president to have but I would have used that authority effectively."
Another flip-flop or was Kerry trotting out his peacenik persona -- and shoring up his base?
After the Democratic Convention, a Washington Post/ABCNews opinion polls found that 85% of voters inclined to support Kerry "strongly support" him while 14% did not strongly support him. Then Kerry made his remark about voting to authorize the use of force in Iraq. Apparently that didn't play too well with the Howard Dean-Dennis Kucinich-MoveOn.org wing of the Democratic Party. At the end of August the numbers slipped: only 75% offered Kerry their strong support, while 23% were in the lukewarm category. Those were numbers were roughly the same before the convention.
If the base of the party slips from his grasp, Kerry will still be a Massachusetts Senator next January 20. That's why he's throwing red meat to the far left, frantically trying to get it to the polls in November. By arguing that the war has stalled domestic spending, he is trying to focus on issues at home -- the economy, health care, and education -- where he thinks he is stronger than Bush. He hopes to attract undecideds who might otherwise be alienated by his position -- or positions -- on Iraq.
Kerry is in a Catch-22. He can't be aggressive on the War on Terror without alienating his left-wing base. But he risks chasing away undecided voters if he's too dovish. Bill Clinton would have known how to skirt the issue. He would "triangulate" on the war and make both sides think he was with them. (Perhaps that's why Kerry now takes advice from Clinton and his many surrogates.) But John Kerry is no Bill Clinton, and his arguments could backfire.
Kerry's latest complaint about spending $200 billion on the Iraq war could open up more charges of "flip-flop." Last year he had this exchange with Tim Russert on "Meet the Press":
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe that we should reduce funding that we are now providing for the operation in Iraq?
SEN. KERRY: No. I think we should increase it.
MR. RUSSERT: Increase funding?
SEN. KERRY: Yes.
MR. RUSSERT: By how much?
SEN. KERRY: By whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win. It is critical that the United States of America be successful in Iraq, Tim.
Furthermore, the public seems unlikely to focus on domestic spending. The third anniversary of September 11 a day away. Afghanistan has national elections next month. President Bush won't allow the War to be put anywhere but front and center for the next two months. Kerry's left turn will dog him until November.
The current Kerry strategy is very risky. But with the need to shore up his base, John Kerry has little choice but to take a big gamble.
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