ONE SENATOR from Massachusetts knows what he believes and is not afraid to say it. He is not the senator who is running for president.
Senator Edward M. Kennedy aroused the wrath of Republicans this week when he called the war in Iraq "George Bush's Vietnam." The comments, made in a speech to the Brookings Institution, drew a rare rebuke from Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rush Limbaugh and the Internet chat crowd threw the ugliest word they could at Kennedy -- Chappaquiddick, a reference to the 1969 automobile accident that killed Mary Jo Kopechne.
There was some debate within Kennedy's staff about the use of the phrase "George Bush's Vietnam." Yet, despite the expected GOP backlash, Kennedy's words ring true to more than the average knee-jerk liberal. Jay Severin, a conservative radio talk show host in Boston, told his audience he was sad to have to acknowledge it, but "Ted Kennedy is right." Sentiment like that from the right is more damaging to President Bush's reelection campaign than anything John Kerry can and probably will say in the upcoming campaign .
If the 2004 presidential election ends with Kerry in the White House, this JFK will owe a large part of the victory to the brother of the original JFK.
The force of Kennedy's conviction and campaigning helped Kerry win the long-ago but pivotal Iowa caucuses. But Kennedy contributed something more valuable than political skill on the stump. Throughout the campaign, he moved the political dialogue to the left, giving Kerry cover and room to maneuver. Kennedy was against the war with Iraq from the outset, and was unafraid to call it a "fraud" and the product of "bankrupt policy." Now, the horrific pictures from Iraq illustrate exactly what Kennedy argued when he voted against the resolution authorizing war. What started as rhetoric from the left is becoming more and more the conversation of mainstream America. People want to support the troops, who are after all, the sons and daughters of our neighbors. They do not want American soldiers to die in Iraq on the altar of a president's bankrupt foreign policy.
Public opinion can shift again if the war dynamic shifts. But Kennedy's position is not shifting, and that constancy is rare in modern American politics. Some of us still like to believe a politician can stand for something and be elected president; if Kerry wins, that theory will remain untested. Kennedy, not Kerry, is the one with a cohesive ideology.
If Bush somehow manages to win despite the debacle in Iraq, it will be because he has a clear position and Americans reluctantly decide to let him see it through. His admirers, dwindling daily according to polls, may mistake stubbornness for conviction. But at least Bush supporters don't shake their heads in confusion whenever he speaks. If they do, it is because of presidential syntax, not because of presidential stance. He is not simultaneously for and against war.
Kerry calls the new bloodshed in Iraq "deeply disturbing" and questions whether the Bush administration set the June 30 deadline for turning over authority in Iraq to an interim government for political reasons. This from a presidential candidate who voted for the Iraq war resolution for political reasons and continues to equivocate about that vote and the war for political reasons.
With Iraq going so badly for Bush, the safe road may be Kerry's road to the White House. If it is, Massachusetts will know that Ted Kennedy opened up the road and led the way. The rest of the country can ridicule Kennedy for the sins and weaknesses of the past. Massachusetts dislikes his cowardice at Chappaquiddick, but respects his political courage in Washington.
Kennedy is the true Massachusetts liberal the Bush-Cheney team longs to run against. But it could be he is not as easy a target as they want to believe. "George Bush's Vietnam" might be the phrase that ends George Bush's presidency.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.