John Kerry Has “Forfeited the High Ground” in Race for the White House

Originally posted: April 30, 2004

Greencastle, Ind. – Take a moment’s break on Saturday, a respite from the bad news pictures of the helicopter gunships and tanks firing on the mosque in Fallujah to remember the sweeter moments of a year ago.

May 1 is the one-year anniversary of the famous landing on the carrier deck. Dressed in pilot togs, President Bush jogged over to the cameras to cheerfully declare an end to the worst fighting.

So sad, how wrong he was.

The truth of Iraq over the past few weeks has been so unrelentingly bad that American support for the war is fading fast. A CBS-News-New York Times poll this week shows Bush’s support for his handling of Iraq stands at 41 percent, down from 59 percent in December.

With the rising death toll and the quagmires of Fallujah, Najaf and Baghdad, there is no sign that American forces will be able to leave soon. Yet we argue over things like whether the public should be allowed to see pictures of flag-draped coffins of American war dead.

The quality of the public debate is so dispiriting. Republicans quibble about John Kerry’s patriotism, having opposed the Vietnam War after serving in it heroically. Kerry, in turn, challenges President Bush to prove he was not AWOL from his safe haven in the National Guard.

Meanwhile, what we have found out in the year since the president declared major combat finished is that ousting Saddam was on Bush’s agenda all along; he just failed to mention it in the campaign of 2000.

In a laudatory book scheduled for publication Saturday, “The Bushes: Portrait of a Dynasty,” authors Peter and Rochelle Schweizer say, “In the pantheon of Bush enemies, none was greater than Saddam.” Adding, “Regime change in Iraq had been a Bush family goal well before 9/11.”

As early as 1998, the neoconservative Project for the New American Century put out a letter calling for an invasion of Iraq. It was signed by Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and Elliott Abrams. All of these turned up in national security roles in the Bush administration two years later, and the die was cast.

The 9/11 commission hearings and books by Richard Clarke, former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, and Bob Woodward all document the administration’s early commitment to invade Iraq, beginning right after the president was inaugurated.

Yet Kerry continues to quibble at the margins because he long ago gave up the larger issue. He adds to his growing reputation as a politician who can see both sides of any issue by continuing to nuance about Iraq. Even though the intelligence was faulty, it was worth going to war to get rid of Saddam, he says. Planning for the aftermath of the war was faulty, says Kerry.

Kerry cannot bring himself to say what needs to be said: That the intelligence about Saddam, Iraq and al-Qaida was exaggerated and manipulated to justify a preconceived set of notions.

This war was hyped so relentlessly that a new poll from the University of Maryland shows that a majority of Americans still believe Saddam gave support to al-Qaida terrorists and that the Iraqi dictator had weapons of mass destruction or programs to develop them. The evidence to support either contention is questionable.

Yet Kerry cannot bring himself to say that the Bush administration took us into Iraq needlessly, and he, Kerry, made the mistake of his life in voting for it.

Kerry has forfeited the high ground on what certainly should be the most important issue in the 2004 election.

Now comes the news that a leading contender for the second spot on the Democratic ticket is Richard Gephardt. Gephardt could carry his important home state of Missouri, it is said, and he has no skeletons in his closet.

Well, if Kerry believes that, he is only half right. Gephardt does have one skeleton. On the day President Bush announced the resolution to invade Iraq, Gephardt stood beside him posing for photographers in the White House rose garden. As leader of the Democrats in the House of Representatives, Gephardt gave Bush cover and made opposing the resolution more difficult for all of his colleagues.

With Gephardt on the Democratic ticket, Ralph Nader’s ad is easy to predict: “Bush-Cheney. Kerry-Gephardt. Unanimous in support of our misguided war in Iraq. Not a dime’s worth of difference. When will America learn?”

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