Nothing stirs Democrats’ anger like the fearmongering rhetoric Bush/Cheney employed on the march to war. “The Iraqi regime’s record over the decade leaves little doubt that Saddam Hussein wants to retain his arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and to expand it to include nuclear weapons. We cannot allow him to prevail in that quest. The weapons are an unacceptable threat.”

“Can we afford to ignore the possibility that Saddam Hussein might provide weapons of destruction to some terrorist group bent on destroying the United States?”

“Every nation has the right to act pre-emptively if it faces an imminent and grave threat.”

The problem with this rhetoric is that it belongs to Senator John Kerry, the Democratic front-runner. He voted for unilateral war in Iraq, citing the same basic rationales offered by the White House. The only difference was that Kerry simultaneously expressed ambiguous “on the other hand” doubts. Ever since his vote, he has elaborated nuanced explanations as to why he didn’t actually mean what he seemed to be saying.

Does it matter? Maybe not. Democrats are so anxious to oust Bush and infatuated with “electability,” many seem eager to skip past important substantive questions. If Kerry locks up the nomination in the next few weeks, one can expect him to move swiftly to the center, broadcasting to wider audiences why he is not one of those peacenik liberals Republicans like to demonize. To avoid “buyer’s remorse” later, Democrats might ask for clarification on three fundamental matters before it’s too late.


Kerry supports Bush’s new doctrine of pre-emptive war. True, the Senator did question whether the Administration had sufficient evidence to invade Iraq and did urge further diplomacy, but the war resolution he supported in October 2002 required neither. Headed “Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq,” the resolution consigned open-ended, undefined powers: “The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to–(1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and (2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq.” Kerry’s claim that he was not giving Bush “carte blanche” for invasion is believable only if you haven’t read the text.

Lately, Kerry has further embellished his antiwar credentials, denouncing Bush for “ideological pre-emption,” claiming “the vote I cast was not a vote to go to war” and opposing $87 billion for the Iraq conflict. Yet he also continues to defend the concept of pre-emptive unilateral war. He belittled Howard Dean’s insistence that “a true international coalition” (Kerry’s words) should have been the condition for war. “For Howard Dean to permit a veto over when America can or cannot act not only becomes little more than a pretext for doing nothing–it cedes our security and presidential responsibility to defend America to someone else,” Kerry explained. Which is it, Senator?

These positions could come back to haunt Kerry if he gets to the White House. The Pentagon and CIA are adept at concocting “threats” around the world, then promoting vague and often fictitious intelligence into a “crisis” the President must address. With helpful clamor from conservative hawks, the military intelligence agencies seem especially to enjoy doing this to Democratic Presidents.


Kerry is a down-the-line free trader. As a senator for eighteen years, he has always supported the multinationals’ position by voting for new trade agreements. Fond of attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, he reportedly once dubbed himself “Davos man.” As a presidential candidate, he muted these views and joined his rivals in calling for environmental and labor rights. He has promised to “fix” NAFTA (as Bill Clinton promised in 1992 before he sold out labor and pushed it to passage). In the run-up to 2004, aware that labor and environmentalists are hostile to corporate-led globalization, Kerry took a more critical position on fast-track negotiating authorization for the proposed FTAA. He offered an amendment to block the notorious investor-rights provisions. His amendment lost. Kerry voted for fast track.

The Senator’s views on trade are as tortuously constructed as his positions on the war against Iraq. His floor speeches on trade agreements meticulously lay out both sides, acknowledging all the negatives and the American workers who will be injured; then he embraces the establishment reasoning and votes yes. In 2000 when the United States formalized trade relations with China and allowed its entry into the World Trade Organization, Kerry anguished at length over human rights, the environment and other concerns but concluded that opening China’s vast market to American companies was more important. It would reduce the soaring US trade deficit with China, he said. The deficit was then $68 billion and is now $127 billion.


Kerry is a conventional establishment politician, not a reformer. Colleagues regard him as thorough and conscientious, not a clubby insider but the opposite of bold and inventive. While he talks now about confronting “special interests,” he has shown no interest whatever in reforming what’s wrong with the Democratic Party itself. Kerry supported the accommodating Tom Daschle for Senate Democratic leader over the more aggressive and liberal Chris Dodd. He serves on Commerce, one of those “money committees” where the stream of business legislation guarantees a heavy flow of corporate campaign contributions. His Massachusetts colleague in the Senate, Edward Kennedy, has often teased and tweaked him into supporting more liberal measures. On welfare reform, Kerry abandoned Kennedy and voted with Clinton and the Republicans.

If Kerry is the nominee, the Democratic Party will have once again managed to finesse important matters that generate great political energy and anti-establishment dissatisfaction among rank-and-file voters–the ill-conceived war in Iraq, globalization and fundamental political reform. If Kerry wins the White House, a disenchanted campaign strategist told me, “it will be like electing the editorial board of the New York Times: totally establishment–but a whole lot better than The Weekly Standard.”