CHICAGO -- By now, anyone who has followed the discussion of John Kerry's war record by the two presidential candidates and their supporters has probably reached a firm conclusion: They should put a sock in it.
From listening to both sides, you'd think Mr. Kerry and George W. Bush were running for trustee of VFW Post 836. Though the differing war stories may be endlessly fascinating to anyone who served in Vietnam, or anyone who strove heroically to avoid serving in Vietnam, the rest of us would rather hear the candidates recite from a volume on patent law.
Mr. Kerry lies awake nights worrying that somewhere, someone assumes he spent the 1960s doing propaganda broadcasts for Radio Moscow instead of seeing combat duty as a Navy officer. His critics fear that if Americans think he earned those three Purple Hearts instead of getting them in a box of Cracker Jack, they'll vote him into the White House by acclamation.
Why Republicans want to keep the spotlight on this subject is a complete mystery. They can muster all the former sailors they want to carp about whether Mr. Kerry deserved his medals, but the chief consequence is to remind us that he went to Vietnam while Mr. Bush found a comfy spot in the Texas Air National Guard. No matter how you spin the issue, there's no way Mr. Bush comes out ahead. When Mr. Kerry waxes indignant about the ads run by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, he's really saying, "Please don't throw me in that briar patch!"
The critics at least have the excuse that they didn't bring up the subject -- Mr. Kerry did. And he was entitled to do so, since Democrats are often accused by Republicans of being hostile to the military, to the use of American power and even to simple patriotism. He would have been crazy, in the middle of the war on terror, not to let people know he'd served his country bravely. But by the time the Democratic convention was done bombarding us with martial rhetoric, even Gen. George S. Patton might have been tempted to consider the merits of peace, love and dope.
Last week, Mr. Kerry spoke to an audience of firefighters in Boston and accused Mr. Bush of letting independently funded surrogates try to besmirch his war record. "Well, if he wants to have a debate about our service in Vietnam, here is my answer: Bring it on!" It was a great line -- in February, when he was running in the Democratic primaries. Not anymore.
The more the Massachusetts senator dwells on his Navy days, the more he brings to mind the over-the-hill jock who always turns the conversation to the winning basket he made against Central High School in 1971. Before long, voters are bound to start wondering why a guy who's spent nearly 20 years in the U.S. Senate never talks about his legislative record.
The natural assumption is that he has nothing there to be proud of. His critics say that's exactly right. They note that the National Journal ranked him the "most liberal senator" last year -- beating Edward M. Kennedy and Hillary Rodham Clinton. They accuse him of being hopelessly soft on defense going back to the Cold War, having voted against the deployment of the Pershing II missile in Europe, against aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and against the first Gulf war.
But this is not a debate that should terrify Democrats. The Pershing II had no military justification, as admitted at the time by diehard hawk and Ronald Reagan defense aide Richard Perle. The Contras had a record of torture, executions and other human rights abuses. Plenty of Democratic senators with solid pro-defense credentials voted against the 1991 Gulf war -- including Sam Nunn of Georgia, John Glenn of Ohio and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.
The centrist Democratic Leadership Council -- which liberals regard as the Republican wing of the Democratic Party -- says Mr. Kerry is no liberal. Notes the DLC, "He supported the `100,000 cops' crime bill of 1994, which most liberal Democrats opposed. He supported a long series of trade expansion agreements throughout the 1980s and 1990s, which most liberal Democrats opposed. He supported the 1996 welfare reform legislation, which roughly half of congressional Democrats opposed. And he supported the 1997 Balanced Budget Agreement, which many liberal Democrats opposed."
Somewhere in this election campaign, there's an illuminating debate to be had about whether Mr. Kerry is an old-fashioned liberal or a hardheaded pragmatist.
Bring it on.
Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.