WASHINGTON - John Kerry, the junior senator from Massachusetts who would be president, wants us to know that he's a war hero and George W. Bush isn't.
This week, Mr. Kerry formally announced his bid for the Democratic nomination using the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown as his backdrop. Mr. Kerry surrounded himself with some of the men he served with in Vietnam, where he earned a Silver Star, Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. He then used the occasion to launch an all-out assault on the integrity of the present commander in chief.
"George Bush's vision does not live up to the America I enlisted in the Navy to defend," Mr. Kerry told the crowd of supporters gathered at Patriot's Point, S.C. The line was meant to remind us that Mr. Bush served in the National Guard, while Mr. Kerry was busy dodging bullets on a gunboat in Vietnam. The senator then went on to accuse the president of lying to the American people and of misleading Congress about the war in Iraq.
The Democrats have a problem - Americans aren't sure whether to trust them when it comes to defending the United States, and with good reason. Since the Vietnam War, the Democratic Party has become the Peace-at-Any-Cost Party. After Sept. 11, 2001, this position became politically untenable, so some Democrats have tried to recast themselves as willing to defend the United States against its enemies. As a bona fide war hero, Mr. Kerry looked poised to assume the role as leader of the new, more hawkish Democratic pack - the party's only hope to challenge a successful wartime president.
President Bush led the country through the horrific days after Sept. 11 with remarkable strength and resolve. He drove the Taliban and much of al-Qaida from Afghanistan. He organized a worldwide effort to cut off funds to terrorist organizations and capture terrorist leaders. And he won the war in Iraq - even if he has not yet totally secured the peace there.
The only way the Democrats can beat this record is by convincing the American people that: a) it didn't happen; b) if it did happen, Mr. Bush had nothing to do with it; or c) it shouldn't have happened in the first place. The last argument seems to be Mr. Kerry's preferred explanation for the success of the war in Iraq.
Mr. Kerry is one of only 29 Democratic senators to vote for the latest war in Iraq - though he voted with the majority of his party against the 1991 Iraq war. "I voted to threaten the use of force to make Saddam Hussein comply with the resolutions of the United Nations," Mr. Kerry told the crowd in front of the USS Yorktown. It was an odd way of putting it - as if he voted only to threaten force, never intending to use it. What's more, he claims he voted that way only because Mr. Bush deceived him. In effect, Mr. Kerry says he was duped.
The last time a presidential candidate claimed to have been duped on something this important was in 1967, when Michigan Republican Gov. George W. Romney said he had been "brainwashed" by the military into supporting the war in Vietnam. The blunder took him out of contention for the presidential nomination. Perhaps it will do the same thing for Mr. Kerry.
The senator can't have it both ways. If he wants to run as the genuine war hero, he can't run away from his own vote to support the war. If he wants to stand up for the soldiers who have defended this country, he can't claim the victories they secured in Afghanistan and Iraq are meaningless. And if he's going to accuse the commander in chief of lying, he better not lie to make his own case.
Mr. Kerry's campaign has been faltering badly in recent months. After a promising start, he's now behind in the polls and in fund raising. Not even a good aircraft carrier photo-op is likely to keep his campaign afloat. And if Mr. Kerry goes down, so does the hope that the Democrats will finally erase their image as the party of protesters, not warriors.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.