Jewish World Review Sept. 15, 2004 / 29 Elul, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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Kerry bets on Iraq change over consistency | Presidential campaigns, like life itself, are determined by choices. Candidates who make the right political ones get to deal with the real stuff in the Oval Office.

John F. Kerry now has decided it is most important voters know that he and President Bush have radically different ideas about the war in Iraq.

Only weeks ago, Kerry sang a different tune. Now, however, he has apparently decided the switch is required to prevent the good ship JFK (that's Kerry, not Kennedy) from sinking.

By giving priority to his split with Bush on Iraq, Kerry risks reinforcing the view held by tens of millions of Americans, including some who favor him, that he changes his mind almost as often as his underwear.

Kerry, who doesn't appear to have much of a sense of humor, is kidding himself if he thinks he can do the former without reinforcing the latter.

Neither Bush nor the news media will let him.

If Kerry is wrong that the political gain from restating his Iraq position is greater than the loss from reinforcing his flip-flopping image, he will almost certainly lose the White House.

After all, as a U.S. senator, he first voted to give Bush the authority to attack Iraq, a position that Kerry has defended as correct throughout the campaign.

Yet after that initial vote to attack Iraq, Kerry later opposed funding the troops. He tried to explain away this seeming inconsistency as something other than a flip-flop on the war itself.

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Then, as part of his Rambo act leading up to, including and following the Democratic convention, Kerry said he would have voted to authorize the invasion even if he knew that Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction.

But now that he is trailing Bush in the polls, and Democrats are in panic mode, Kerry has staked out another new and contradictory position.

He has abandoned his efforts to outhawk the president and reclaimed the antiwar identity that brought him to the public light after Vietnam and dominated his 20-year Senate career.

"I would not have done just one thing differently than the president on Iraq; I would have done everything differently than the president on Iraq," he says now.


Obviously, this latest change will merely reinforce the public perception that, depending on whether you give him the benefit of the doubt, Kerry is either indecisive or an unprincipled politician who will say or do anything to get elected.

The change is apparently based on the sage advice from aides - many of whom were the same folks who helped Michael Dukakis lose a 17-point lead over George H.W. Bush in 1988 - that his road to victory now lies in criticizing the president's policies, even if Kerry had similar ones just weeks ago.

The Bush folks can hardly contain their glee.

They figure most everyone against the war is already in the Kerry camp anyway.

Hence, Bush's approach is to tell voters that Kerry "woke up with yet another new position. And this one is not even his own," suggesting that the Democratic nominee was just aping Howard Dean.

When Bush tells voters, "I think this country wants consistent, principled leadership," he knows the polling data show voters view consistency as his strength and Kerry's weakness.

When Gallup's post-Republican-convention poll asked voters who they saw as "a strong and decisive leader," they picked Bush over Kerry by a margin of 60 percent to 32 percent. Asked which one is "honest and trustworthy," they cited the president 47 percent to 38 percent for his challenger.

The Kerry folks see the same numbers but have decided their best hope now is the traditional Democratic approach of criticizing the GOP as too militaristic and out of sync with the country's domestic needs. This strategy, mind you, comes after their convention was dedicated to the improbable idea Kerry could go to Bush's right on national defense.

Flights of fancy worked for Bill Clinton 12 years ago against Bush's father, but times and the players have changed.

By 1992, the Soviet Union had imploded, and voters were not much interested in defense matters because they took their safety for granted.

It was before 9-11 fractured Americans' sense of invulnerability from foreign attacks, putting national security at the top of their agenda this November.

Perhaps just as important, John Kerry is no Bill Clinton, who advised Kerry from his hospital bed while awaiting open-heart surgery to take a new, more combative stance on Iraq.

Clinton had the political talents to make voters believe that his changing positions were neither inconsistent nor unprincipled, but justifiable by circumstances.

We are about to see if Kerry can do the same. If so, he might win. If not, he'll lose.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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08/03/04: Kerry's challenge: Closing the deal
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05/25/04: America has a bad attitude!
05/20/04: Surprise! A thank you to Bill Clinton
05/06/04: Corrupt U.N.? Shine a light
04/28/04: Kerry not weak on defense — just wrong
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12/23/04: UN proves yet again it's dangerously misguided
11/18/03: U.N. oversight of Internet: Dumb idea
11/11/03: Absent change, GOP trend continues
10/28/03: Soft-on-defense stereotype — no wonder
10/22/03: Bet on Bush and the economy
09/23/03: France's time to decide: Friend or foe
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06/24/03: Let seniors make their own choices
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05/13/03: Bush mimics Nixon, Reagan by going against the political grain

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