The overriding issue

August 11, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - The chairman of the 9/11 commission, Thomas H. Kean, in his campaign for urgent adoption of its recommendations, has suggested that voters cast their ballots in the November election on the basis of the candidates' response to them.

Sen. John Kerry, recognizing the political potency of the issue, quickly embraced the commission's proposals en masse, calling for swift enactment of legislation to achieve them. President Bush, who first opposed the commission's creation, has now cautiously bought into parts of its recommendations.

As a result, the political debate on the report risks being reduced to which candidate was first with the most (Mr. Kerry) or whether sober judgment is warranted rather than knee-jerk haste (Mr. Bush).

As important as the commission report is, and how critical national security intelligence reform may be, Mr. Kean's notion that the candidates' reactions to the report should determine how voters cast their ballots Nov. 2 seems somewhat myopic, this year especially.

The same can be said of most of the other single issues that interest groups dealing with everything from abortion to same-sex marriage argue voters should make the deciding factor at the polls.

Elections, candidates like to tell us, are about the future - what, if they are elected, they intend to do to make the lives of voters better. Single-issue voting seldom addresses that question except in the narrowest way.

This time, there are two very broad issues that focus on the general well-being of the nation and thus demand the voters' consideration at the ballot box, more than the candidates' reactions to the 9/11 report or any of the other pleas for single-issue voting.

The first, obviously, is the war in Iraq: Should we be in it, and how do we extricate our troops from it in a way that salvages some good from the sacrifice of more than 900 Americans and billions of American dollars?

The second, equally obviously, is the economy at home: Why has it stalled, or how has a massive budget surplus eroded into a massive budget deficit in less than four years and what can be done to restore the nation's economic health?

But it is the war issue above all that cries out for more discussion and candor from both major party candidates. And what are we getting?

From Mr. Kerry comes a stab at it, but it is compromised by his repeated efforts to explain his seemingly contradictory vote for Mr. Bush's war resolution followed by his vote against the $87 billion enabling appropriation.

From Mr. Bush comes a drumbeat of attacks on Mr. Kerry as a flip-flopper, a stream of alibis for the mess in Iraq and a growing credibility gap on everything from missing weapons of mass destruction to belated terrorism alerts.

At the Democratic convention, Mr. Kerry spent more time on the war in Vietnam than the one in Iraq, making his decorated Navy service a centerpiece of it. He bolstered his contention that he offers stronger national security leadership with a parade of supporting retired generals and admirals.

Later this month, Mr. Bush can be expected to turn the Republican convention into a celebration of patriotism behind a "wartime president" - in the face of probable anti-Bush street demonstrations outside Madison Square Garden.

But Mr. Bush did advance the debate somewhat the other day, challenging Mr. Kerry to say whether he would have supported the Iraq invasion "knowing what we know now" - that weapons of mass destruction were not found.

Mr. Kerry, surprisingly, replied in the affirmative, but then questioned why the president decided to "rush to war without a plan to win the peace," why he acted "on faulty intelligence" and why he "misled America about how he would go to war."

It can only be hoped that this fall, Mr. Bush and Mr. Kerry, while talking about reforming the nation's intelligence apparatus, and even abortion and same-sex marriage, will finally address in greater detail the overriding issue the election should be about: Why we're in Iraq and what each of them will do if elected to put U.S. foreign policy back on course after this disastrous adventure.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.