If you give a speech at the Democratic National Convention, there are some simple rules you have to follow. First, somewhere in your speech, you must mention John Kerry's heroic exploits in the Vietnam war. Second, you must never ever mention that Kerry first rose to prominence as a leader of Vietnam
Veterans Against the War. In fact, if you are even a delegate to the
convention, you must not show any support for the ideal of peace, or you risk have the Democrats' hired goons swoop down on you and confiscate your peace signs and regalia.
Why are the Democrats so afraid of peace? Part of the answer lies in the third rule for speakers. You must not commit the Party to any specific promises or programs. Just stick to platitudes, platitudes. Keep it all so vague that even George W. could endorse nearly everything you say.
The Dems are taking no chances. They assume that they have the peace movement's votes in their hip pocket. But they haven't figured out what the rest of the country wants to hear. They do need a weatherman to know which way the political wind blows. So they are playing this one as conservative as a gray-suited Republican banker.
They know that W. must run as the indispensable strong leader in a time of war. That's the only issue on which he ever gets approval from more than half the voters. So no paisley and tie-dye talk of peace for him.
If that seems to be working in October, the Democrats don't want Kerry saddled with any taint of being a peace candidate. They want him to be able to out- tough guy the tough guy. On the other hand, if opposition to the Iraq war continues to rise, Kerry can skewer Bush as an inept war leader. Nothing wrong with fighting a war, the new JFK will say. I've done it. But I know how to do it right.
Every word coming from Boston this week is crafted to appeal to the 16 or so states where the election will be decided. But there is another vital audience that Democratic leaders never forget: the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, stretching from Georgetown to the Council on Foreign Relations to the Kennedy School at Harvard. No president can govern effectively without their support. Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter learned that the hard way. Both ended up as one-term presidents because they would not toe the establishment's line.
Now it's W's turn. When he went to war in Iraq, this elite filled the op-ed pages (and no doubt the private corridors of power) with fair warning to him. You want to impose U.S. hegemony on Iraq? Fine and dandy. We know you'll win the war. But just make sure you win the peace and impose order on the postwar chaos. Don't leave us presiding over a fractured, rebellious, ungovernable Iraq.
That's exactly what W. did leave us with, of course. Now the establishment is ready to turn him out and give Kerry a chance. In return for their support, Kerry must promise to play their game. One crucial move in that game is for the U.S. to make occasional credible threats of war. The fiasco in Iraq has made that much harder.
Consider just one not so far-fetched scenario. The Bush administration has funded its enormous military budgets and tax cuts for the rich by borrowing huge sums from China. Suppose the Chinese bankers, who are a pretty conservative bunch themselves, see trouble on the financial horizon and want to call in some of their loans. That could topple the whole economy here.
We can't just assume that the Chinese have enough sense to see it would ruin them too. The U.S. has to have a dependable big stick to intimidate the Chinese. But if we can't even run Iraq successfully, how can we think about threatening a serious opponent like China? The Chinese would just laugh at us.
The foreign policy establishment knows that the whole world is watching. Every word that comes out of Boston this week is heard in capitals around the globe. Every word is taken as a signal of what a Kerry administration would do.
The Democrats are trying as hard as they can to make those signals indecipherable. They want to make sure there is nothing that the establishment might fear as a sign of American weakness. If the Democrats so much as hint that they might tilt toward an antiwar stance, the kind of stance Kerry once took so bravely, they could lose the vital support of the foreign policy establishment.
But it's a dangerous deal. Kerry became famous as an antiwar leader when he
asked: "How do you ask a man to be the last to die for a mistake?" He may win the establishment's support, and the election, only to find himself one day as president, asking a man to be the last to die for a mistake.
Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder email@example.com