Friday, July 30, 2004; Page A18
AL GORE AND George W. Bush accepted their parties' 2000 nominations for the presidency with an optimism fueled by seeming prosperity at home and apparent security in a post-Cold War world. In accepting the Democratic nomination last night, John F. Kerry spoke to a far more anxious America, one that has weathered a recession and, more important, entered what the nominee called "a global war on terror against an enemy unlike we've ever known before." Mr. Kerry therefore sought above all to make the case that he could be trusted to lead a nation at war, and rightly so; he and Mr. Bush must be judged first and foremost on those grounds. But on that basis, though Mr. Kerry spoke confidently and eloquently, his speech was in many respects a disappointment.
Mr. Kerry deserves credit for recognizing the demands of fighting a war and for promising to strengthen the military accordingly. He talked movingly of how his combat experience would temper his decision making: "I know what kids go through when they are carrying an M-16 in a dangerous place and they can't tell friend from foe." The responsibility of sending troops into danger should weigh on a commander in chief. But so must the responsibility of protecting the nation against a shadowy foe not easily deterred by traditional means. Mr. Kerry last night elided the charged question of whether, as president, he would have gone to war in Iraq. He offered not a word to celebrate the freeing of Afghans from the Taliban, or Iraqis from Saddam Hussein, and not a word about helping either nation toward democracy.
In Iraq, Mr. Kerry said, "We need a president who has the credibility to bring our allies to our side and share the burden. . . . That's the right way to get the job done and bring our troops home." Mr. Kerry was right to chide Mr. Bush for alienating allies unnecessarily. But what is "the job" in Iraq? He didn't say. Mr. Kerry could have spoken the difficult truth that U.S. troops will be needed in Iraq for a long time. He could have reaffirmed his commitment to completing the task of helping build democracy. Instead, he chose words that seemed designed to give the impression that he could engineer a quick and painless exit.
Nor did Mr. Kerry's statements about future threats do justice to the complexity of today's challenge. "As president, I will ask hard questions and demand hard evidence," he said, a well-aimed shot at the Bush administration's failures to do the same. For many in the hall last night, the intelligence lapses in Iraq prove the wrongness of Mr. Bush's preemption strategy, and Mr. Kerry seemed to agree, saying that "the only justification for going to war" would be "a threat that was real and imminent." Yet a President Kerry, too, would face momentous decisions based on inevitably imperfect information, whether about Iran or North Korea or dangers yet to emerge. How would he respond? Will it always be safe to wait?
Much as America's safety looks different now than it did four years ago, so, too, does its economic security. In 2000, the argument was about how to spend the surplus; now it is about how to achieve laudable goals, such as expanded and affordable health care, on limited means. A Kerry administration would find itself in a ditch dug largely by the irresponsibility of the current administration, with its heedless disregard for future generations. Mr. Kerry has offered a thoughtful approach to improving health care, and his plan to trim the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to pay for health insurance and education is responsible.
Yet in economics as in national security, Mr. Kerry missed an opportunity for straight talk. His promises to stop the outsourcing of jobs and end dependence on Middle East oil are not grounded in reality. And Mr. Kerry failed to acknowledge the fiscal challenge posed by the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation, with its call on Medicare and Social Security. To the contrary, he raised the issue of Social Security only to reaffirm that he would not cut benefits -- a promise that a President Kerry might come to regret.
The election won't turn on either candidate's performance at the convention. The next 95 days will bring debates and other chances for voters to assess the two candidates. Events outside their control, at home, in Iraq and elsewhere, may play a decisive role. In the end, Mr. Kerry will be judged not in a vacuum but against the record compiled by Mr. Bush. But he will be judged in part on how he chose to present himself last night, and on that score, while he may have been politically effective, he fell short of demonstrating the kind of leadership the nation needs.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
The Rush to Reorganize (The Washington Post, Jul 30, 2004)
Parties to a Sense of Entitlement (The Washington Post, Jul 29, 2004)
Democrats' Shaky Convergence (The Washington Post, Jul 29, 2004)
The Sixteen Words, Again (The Washington Post, Jul 21, 2004)
Unanswered Questions (The Washington Post, Jul 11, 2004)
The Intelligence Mess (The Washington Post, Jul 11, 2004)