John on the Spot: There's No Question That Democrats Are United against George W. Bush. but That's Not Quite the Same Thing as Being United for John Kerry

By Wildman, Sarah | The American Prospect, May 2004 | Go to article overview
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John on the Spot: There's No Question That Democrats Are United against George W. Bush. but That's Not Quite the Same Thing as Being United for John Kerry


Wildman, Sarah, The American Prospect


THEY SAY THAT JOHN KERRY HAS THE entire Democratic establishment, and even some outliers, in his corner. "I personally have never seen the Democratic Party more united," says one party strategist. "As in ever." Swearing that the intraparty squabbling of the last decade is over, allegiance to the candidate has come from all corners.

But "party unity" doesn't equal "defined candidate." And at the beginning of April, as this issue went to press, Kerry's message had yet to be firmly articulated. "It's up to the campaign to make choices--clear choices--so that the campaign is not a themeless pudding," says another top Democratic strategist. "No one wants to rerun the Gore campaign."

Kerry has his work cut out for him. His party is most deeply divided on the very questions that will dominate the 2004 elections: foreign and economic policy. He'll need to try to satisfy both wings enough to keep them engaged in his campaign while at the same time coming up with a unified message that reaches crucial independents. So far he's kept a tenuous hold on the party, but his message is still patchy, generally promoting a multilateralist foreign policy and a hard line on deficit reduction. In both arenas, he's got to find a coherent ideology, and present it with force, if his bid to trump George W. Bush is to succeed.

TO DATE, KERRY'S TEAM HAS BEEN pushing a foreign-policy cocktail that is four parts anti-Bush policy, one part Clinton-era nation building, and a dash of honorifics to pre-Vietnam Democrats. But with the Iraqi occupation deteriorating, Kerry needs to offer detailed alternatives.

Kerry's foreign policy shop is led by Rand Beers, a former National Security Council counterterrorism adviser who served four presidents before quietly quitting the Bush White House last spring. Beers' line on counterterrorism focuses on re-engaging America's allies, both on intelligence and in military action; reaching out to the Arab world; and routing out not just terrorists but the very roots of terrorism. Like his friend Richard Clarke, Beers has expressed the belief that Iraq was a dangerous diversion from the war on terrorism. These views have found their way into Kerry's stump speeches, with his multiple pledges to reach out to allies in Europe, the Middle East, and the United Nations to bolster U.S. credibility abroad.

A team of proxies are pushing this vision on Kerry's behalf. "I think what [Kerry] stands for," former State Department spokesman James Rubin told FOX's John Gibson in mid-March, are "the kind of policies that go back to Franklin Roosevelt, to the time after World War II ... when we worked with the rest of the world to deal with problems, to deal with them successfully, but we didn't find ourselves alone, virtually alone in Iraq the way we do today." Addressing Kerry's platform, Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton's national-security adviser, has been advancing a similar line in his TV appearances, and former United Nations Ambassador Richard Holbrooke has pushed the lost art of nation building.

Having heavyweights like Berger and Helbrooke onboard helps provide needed gravitas, but Kerry has just begun hammering out the details on Iraq and reconciling them with his vote against the $87 billion for reconstruction. In an April 13 Washington Post oped, he provided a glimpse of what his Iraqi policy would look like: more U.S. troops, broader roles for NATO and the United Nations, and a U.S. pledge to accept any UN--brokered plan for self-governance that Iraqis agree to. At bottom, the article was an advertisement for long-term nation building--a signal that a Kerry presidency would not pull up stakes in Iraq and, in fact, might well stay longer than a second Bush administration would. It's an activist, internationalist approach that Kerry has also indicated he'd use with North Korea, which he has said he would re-engage with in direct talks, and in the Middle East, where his team has signaled a return to Clinton-era levels of engagement.

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