John F. Kerry journeyed Wednesday to the spot where President Bush made his case for the Iraq war two years ago to accuse Bush of making "catastrophic choices" that have cost the nation $200 billion and shortchanged education, health care and job creation.
As part of a new, two-front strategy to refocus the debate over Iraq, Kerry offered his sharpest criticism yet of the mounting economic costs of invading, occupying and stabilizing the country with little assistance from other nations. "George W. Bush's wrong choices have led America in the wrong direction in Iraq and left America without the resources we need here at home," Kerry said.
The Democratic nominee blamed Bush's "miscalculations" before and after the war for leaving children with fewer after-school programs, older veterans with inadequate health care, neighborhoods with fewer police officers to keep the peace and workers with fewer jobs. "When I'm president, America will once again stand up to our enemies without destroying or denying our best hopes here at home," Kerry said.
Aides said Kerry is planning a speech soon in which he will offer a detailed plan to end, or greatly curtail, the U.S. military operation in Iraq by January 2009 and reduce the cost to U.S. taxpayers in the interim. The twin offensive is designed to help Kerry regain his political footing on Iraq as the number of U.S. personnel killed there topped 1,000. Recent national polls show a majority of voters trust Bush more than Kerry on Iraq.
Kerry has been under relentless attack by Bush and the GOP for what they say are his vague and inconsistent positions on Iraq, and his advisers said the Democrat must clearly state his policy so he can shift the focus of his campaign -- and the election -- to economic issues. "You cannot ignore the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of the room -- we are involved in a quagmire in Iraq," said Joe Lockhart, senior adviser to Kerry. Wednesday's speech represented an attempt to blend Iraq and domestic issues. "This allows us to talk about domestic priorities and the mess in Iraq," Lockhart said.
A problem for Kerry has been that every time he talks about Iraq, Republicans say that he is trying to have it both ways: supporting the war and criticizing it. Kerry hammered Bush in the speech for failing to properly equip the troops, although Bush and Vice President Cheney criticize the Massachusetts senator almost daily for voting against an $87 billion bill that included money for military personnel in Iraq.
"I would not have made the wrong choices that are forcing us to pay nearly the entire cost of this war -- $200 billion," Kerry said. But Bush's campaign noted shortly after the speech that Kerry argued one year ago that the government should increase spending in Iraq "by whatever number of billions of dollars it takes to win."
Asked if Kerry would have attacked Iraq if he had been in Bush's position, Kerry spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said, "We don't answer hypothetical questions."
Kerry, seeking to differentiate himself from Bush and gain the initiative, sought to tie the war's conduct and costs, both in human terms and in dollars, to a failure of leadership by the president. Kerry repeated his previous assertions that Bush failed to build an adequate coalition before the war, rushed into military action before United Nations weapons inspectors had finished their work, and mismanaged prosecution of the war.
A "glance at the front pages or a look at the nightly news shows the hard reality," he said. "Rising instability. Spreading violence. Growing extremism. Havens for terrorists that weren't there before."
The setting for Kerry's speech was striking for its symbolism. He spoke in the soaring art deco hall of Union Terminal, a restored train station-turned-museum complex where Bush appeared in October 2002 to give a nationally televised address justifying a U.S. attack on Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Some of the claims in that speech have been undermined, such as Bush's contention that Iraq "possesses and produces chemical and biological weapons. It is seeking nuclear weapons. It has given shelter and support to terrorism."
The Kerry campaign has clearly decided the cost of the war is a subject that will resonate with the public. It was the dominant theme of his speech -- he mentioned the $200 billion price tag 14 times -- and it dovetailed with an ad the campaign released Wednesday. The new ad, called "Wrong Choices," juxtaposes the $200 billion expenditure for Iraq with "lost jobs and rising health care costs" in America. It is slated to air in eight swing states this week.
Kerry said here that the war's price tag was driving up record federal deficits and sapping government of the ability to fund education, health care, homeland security, Social Security and job-creation programs. "Nearly two years after George W. Bush spoke to the nation from this very place," Kerry said, "we know how wrong his choices were."
The Kerry campaign's $200 billion figure is based on $144.4 billion already spent on the conflict, plus $60 billion Kerry believes the administration will ask Congress for in a supplemental request after the Nov. 2 election. The Congressional Budget Office estimated in June that the war could cost from $180 billion to almost $400 billion over the next 10 years, under various scenarios.
As part of Kerry's new offensive, there are discussions of a speech that would explain Kerry's Vietnam experience, including his leadership role in the antiwar protests in the early 1970s and efforts to fight for veterans in the decades that followed, aides said. The anti-Kerry Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has pulled its ads for a few days, is planning to hit Kerry again soon on his protests after Vietnam.
Kerry has not completely found his post-Labor Day stride. On Tuesday, after learning that the American death toll in Iraq had topped 1,000, Kerry said U.S soldiers had given their lives "on behalf of freedom in the war on terrorism." Kerry, who frequently criticizes Bush for linking Iraq and the war on terrorism, backpedaled through a spokesman, who said Kerry "was referring to U.S. soldiers fighting in parts of Iraq that have now become a breeding ground for terrorists."
Despite the increasing intensity of the Iraq debate, neither candidate has offered many specifics on how he would bring the war to a conclusion.
Kerry dedicated only a small section of the speech to clarify how he would handle Iraq differently than Bush in the future.
Kerry said he would enlist more allies, spread the costs among other nations and train a larger number of Iraqi forces. But it is not clear that other nations are interested in contributing more troops or money to the mission. Moreover, the Bush administration is training Iraqi forces, albeit not as quickly and effectively as Kerry would like. Bush has been silent on any timetable for withdrawal and plans to end the war.
VandeHei reported from Washington.