Exploiting a wobbly war stance

August 13, 2004|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- Like a prizefighter probing for an opening, President Bush found a telling one the other day in sparring with John Kerry over the senator's 2002 vote authorizing the use of force in Iraq.

He challenged Mr. Kerry to say whether he would have voted to do so even, as a reporter later put it, "knowing what we know now" that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.

Mr. Kerry responded that he would have, adding his usual caveats that Mr. Bush should not have rushed to war without more allies and without an exit strategy. But the answer left him wide open to a one-two punch promptly delivered by the president and Vice President Dick Cheney.

FOR THE RECORD - Correction
My previous column inadvertently said President Bush had stated he would begin American troop withdrawals next year; it was Mr. Kerry who made the statement.

Mr. Bush, on the campaign trail in Florida, proclaimed that months "after switching positions to declare himself the anti-war candidate, my opponent has found a new nuance" and "now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq. After months of questioning my motives and even my credibility, Senator Kerry now agrees with me that even though we have not found weapons we all believe were there, he would have voted to go into Iraq and removed Saddam Hussein from power. I want to thank Senator Kerry for clearing that up."

In New Mexico, Mr. Bush said he could begin U.S. troop withdrawals next year by rallying other major powers to get involved in Iraq: "I know what I'm doing when it comes to winning this war, and I'm not going to be sending mixed signals. ... We did the right thing, and the world is better off for it."

Mr. Cheney piled on, saying Mr. Kerry "voted for the war but turned against it ... when it was politically expedient" and now says "that his vote to authorize force wasn't really a vote to go to war. ... We need a commander in chief who is steady and steadfast."

Mr. Kerry, in taking Mr. Bush's bait and saying he would have gone into Iraq, weapons of mass destruction or no, appeared to be denying he had flip-flopped on his pre-war Senate vote authorizing the use of force. If so, it only dug him a deeper hole with anti-war Democrats who claim the Iraq invasion was illegal, or at least an unnecessary war of choice.

As he has attempted throughout the campaign, Mr. Kerry has labored mightily to attach conditions to that vote, alleging that Mr. Bush not only misled the country on why he was going to war but also failed to work through the United Nations sufficiently to achieve an international response.

But the Democratic nominee's tortured inability to articulate his position on the war vote in a way that would dispel voter confusion continues to haunt his campaign.

Commenting on Mr. Kerry's latest defense in yesterday's New York Times, Rand Beers, a key Kerry adviser on Iraq, summed up his candidate's differences with Mr. Bush as "rushing to war ... doing it without allies ... doing it without equipping our troops adequately ... doing it without a plan to win the peace ... going to war without examining the quality of your intelligence."

Maybe Mr. Beers should be the nominee.

Mr. Kerry's continuing need to give a more lucid and convincing explanation of his vote on Mr. Bush's war resolution, now more effectively exploited than ever by the Bush-Cheney campaign, cries out for a more pointed and direct political counter by the Democratic candidate.

Rather than trying to parry the president's taunts on the run, the time may have come for Mr. Kerry to hold a full-blown news conference focusing solely on defending that vote and why he cast it as he did. With all the millions his campaign has been spending on television ads, maybe he needs to buy air time to present a more carefully crafted defense.

He could also use such an occasion to spell out his contentions that Mr. Bush has botched the aftermath of a war that the senator now apparently says was justified. As matters stand, Mr. Kerry needs to explain himself not only to clarify his views to the general public but also to reassure all those Democrats who support him essentially because he is not George W. Bush.

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

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