Gene Lyons: Will the real flip-flopper please stand up?
Posted on Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Back when many in the media assured us that Howard Dean had the Democratic presidential nomination wrapped up, before citizens ever voted, his supporters argued that nobody who'd voted to give President Bush authority to go to war against Iraq could run credibly against
Now that Sen. John Kerry is poised to become the Democratic nominee, Bush has adopted that argument as his own. Back in October 2002, see, Kerry voted in favor of Bush's cynically timed, preelection Iraq resolution. Now Republicans are trying to use it against him. They've expended around $100 million on TV ads portraying Kerry as a flip-flopper. Bush himself, whose only effective rhetorical mode is mockery, regales GOP audiences with jokes about Kerry's supposedly flexible principles. "My opponent has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue," he said recently. "He voted for the Patriot Act... and for the use of force in Iraq. Now he opposes the Patriot Act... and the liberation of Iraq.... In order to lead this country, you have to be consistent and clear. Someone asked Senator Kerry why he voted against the $87 billion funding bill to help our troops in Iraq. Here's what he said: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it." End of quote. That sure clears things up, doesn't it?
An incumbent who spends most of his energy attacking his opponent is an incumbent in trouble. And given the bloody mess this administration has created in Iraq, it's no wonder. The question is whether Kerry can wipe the smirk off Bush's face and turn the joke against him. After all, most swing voters once trusted Bush's bogus certitude about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and portentous hints about Iraq's role in 9/11.
Last week, Kerry may have found the way. In an interview with USA Today, he made the issue fundamental trust.
As usual, Bush's false dualisms obscure more than they reveal. See, liberating Iraq was never put to a vote. It wasn't even mentioned. Bush never asked Congress to declare war. Instead, he proposed using the threat of force as a diplomatic tool to force Saddam Hussein into compliance. The resolution Kerry voted for authorized the president to use "necessary and appropriate" force only to "enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council resolutions regarding Iraq."
Only if Saddam defied U. N. arms inspections was the president empowered to make war to "defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq." By taking the issue to the Security Council, Bush did what Democrats asked. "I have been 100 percent consistent," Kerry emphasized to USA Today. "Saddam Hussein was a threat, he needed to be held accountable to the U. N. resolutions.
But it needed to be done in the right way. George Bush did it in the wrong way, and broke his promises to Americans."
At first, the policy worked. Saddam folded. He admitted U. N. arms inspectors, who could find no Iraqi weapons of mass destruction despite U.S. intelligence tips chasing them down multiple blind alleys. That's when Bush pulled a bait-and-switch. Having vowed to make war as "a last resort," he acted rashly. Certain to lose a promised U. N. Security Council vote decisively, he went back on his word, warned the inspectors to leave and started bombing. Media cheerleaders "embedded" with the troops gave little emphasis to Bush's about-face and covered the invasion of Iraq like the Super Bowl. "The president misled America," Kerry told USA Today. "I don't know about deliberately, but he misled America, he misled the world. He misled Americans in Congress about how he was going to go to war. About what he would do. About why. We now have a new rationale "the liberation of Iraq" for having gone to war....
When you break (your promise on policy), you've broken your trust. "
Asked if he'd voted to give the president" the benefit of the doubt, "Kerry said no." Issues of war and peace,"he emphasized," go outside of partisan politics. When the president of the United States says, "This is the way I'm going to do something," you ought to have the right to believe that president. And if there's anything that makes me more motivated about this [campaign], it is the fact that he went back on his word with respect to an issue that involves the lives of our young Americans. Americans know that this president did not go to war as a last resort." By the way, Bush himself threatened to veto the $87 billion Kerry voted for because it limited millionaires' tax cuts. What Kerry voted against was financing the war with borrowed money. Maybe that's too complicated for a 30-second TV spot. It's when Kerry says these things to Bush's face that they're apt to sting.
Free-lance columnist Gene Lyons is a Little Rock author and recipient of the National Magazine Award.