Confronting the Iraq Issue
By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 28, 2004; 6:20 PM
Last year, in a speech to the Democratic Leadership Council in New York, former president Bill Clinton excoriated his own party, admonishing it to stand up and fight for its values. He said it was better to "be strong and wrong, than weak and right."
Around the same time, Howard Dean's message that the party had to do a better job of standing up for itself began to catch on. Unfortunately, for Dean, he flamed out in the primaries, but his impact on the party was unmistakable.
Or was it?
One recent poll of delegates here in Boston suggested nine out of 10 oppose the war in Iraq. Criticism of Bush's decision to take the country to war and his handling of the effort to win the peace has been the emotional undercurrent of most of the major speeches here since Monday.
While the platform does criticize Bush for failing to win a broad international coalition in the march to war, the party sidestepped the issue of whether going to war in Iraq was the right thing to do, saying, "people of good will disagree about whether America should have gone to war."
I broached the topic with some of Kerry's key advisers -- campaign manager Mary Beth Cahill, pollster Mark Mellman and media strategist Tad Devine -- at a Washington Post- sponsored lunch this afternoon.
Earlier in the interview with journalists from the news and editorial staffs of the paper, Cahill had mentioned the economy, job creation, health care and energy dependence as the top issues in the campaign. Devine had to tap her to remind her that "security" was the other big issue.
In my question, I suggested that even though the sentiment in the party is overwhelmingly against Iraq, it didn't seem that the campaign or the party was eager to make Iraq issue number one in the campaign. And did the platform sort of play into the oft-heard criticism of Democrats that they are too weak and often afraid to take bold stands based on their values out of fear of turning off some people?
They all disagreed, saying that Kerry talks about Iraq often on the campaign trail and has been clear in his criticism of the president's handling of the situation -- specifically Bush's failure to build a strong international coalition.
"John Kerry is very mindful of those men and women serving in Iraq," Cahill said. "We want to make sure that their service is honored and that we don't do anything to make them any less safe."
But Republicans say Kerry's position has been anything but clear. The Republican National Committee today released a new 11-minute Internet ad that strings together a series of Kerry quotes to suggest that the candidate has been wishy-washy on the issue. The video is meant to make voters ask, "What does he really stand for?" The video is available here.
The Kerry campaign fired back furiously today that the GOP was twisting Kerry's words and taking them out of context for political expediency and released a memo it says proves it.
"This video is nothing but a stale old attack from the Bush-Cheney campaign, who can't for the life of them find anything positive to say. It comes from the same president that told us Saddam Hussein was tied to al Qaeda, that we'd be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, and that we wouldn't be bearing the costs and casualties alone. Need any more reminders of why this administration's lost its credibility?" said Kerry campaign spokesman Chad Clanton.
There seems to be little doubt that Kerry's position on Iraq has evolved. But people of goodwill -- to steal a phrase from the Democratic Party platform -- can disagree over whether that's a good or a bad thing. America and the world have learned a lot about Iraq and the administration's pre-war assertions in the past year and a half.
Bush continues to argue that going to war was the right thing to do, even as his major rationale for it has been undermined. This the Republicans see as a sign of strength. Kerry's position has evolved. The Republicans portray this as a sign of weakness. How the voters interpret these issues might help decide the election.
Listen to audio excerpts from a Washington Post interview with Kerry advisers Tad Devine, Mary Beth Cahill and Mark Mellman.
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