The most rousing speech at the Democratic Leadership Council’s New York conference—according to both journalistic consensus and the applause meter—was given by Hillary Clinton, who definitely isn’t running for President. Her poise and passion on the stump have grown exponentially since her Senate campaign, and she blew the doors off the Hilton ballroom.
But it was John Kerry who delivered the most interesting, substantive
and challenging message.
His subject was George W. Bush’s shortcomings as a world leader.
The New York Times reported that Mr. Kerry "offered a long attack on Mr. Bush’s foreign policy," although the paper gave short shrift to the details in the Senator’s speech. What he began to articulate was a Democratic critique of this administration’s blunt and myopic unilateralism, and a vision that restores international alliances to the center of American diplomacy.
He agrees with the objective of removing Saddam Hussein, but objected to the vague plans for what will replace the Iraqi dictatorship. He called the latest arms treaty with Russia a "cosmetic" one that inadequately safeguards decommissioned weapons. He denounced the "Cold War" approach to North Korea that has undone the progress achieved by the Clinton administration. He expressed scorn for the administration’s disengagement from the Middle East crisis before Sept. 11.
He demanded an increase in foreign assistance as the best guarantee against suicidal terror. "If we fail to reach the children and families wrecked by the violence of poverty and seclusion, the growing population of unemployed and unemployable kids will find in fanaticism an answer to their problems," he said.
He is, however, no naïve internationalist who abhors military force. As he has done before, Mr. Kerry wondered aloud why the President didn’t muster sufficient firepower in Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda’s army when the chance arose at Tora Bora.
And he sought to connect the trouble America encounters abroad to the oil-dominated energy policy of this oilmen’s government. "We must search for clean, renewable resources," he said, "not just because it is in the interests of our environment, but because it is a demand of national security." Liberating the nation from oil "can liberate our foreign policy and empower the United States to tell the truth throughout the Middle East."
Mr. Kerry is staking out a politically perilous position at a time when conventional wisdom declares foreign and military issues to be the exclusive province of the President. As a Senator from Massachusetts—whose last Presidential nominee suffered humiliating defeat by a candidate named Bush—he risks highlighting negative assumptions about his own viability on a national ticket.
According to the scientific measurements made by political consultants, Mr. Kerry’s chosen path is marked "dead end." The safer domestic route is crowded with competitors who talk only about corporate responsibility, prescription drugs and Social Security. The boldest among them now criticize the lopsided tax cut that shouldn’t have passed last year.
The leading example of this kind of politician is John Edwards, a personable man and decent Senator who spoke in banal terms about "responsibility." The North Carolina Senator wanted his centrist audience to understand that he has a strong position on the Pledge of Allegiance: He’s for it, particularly the controversial phrase that refers to God. He only acknowledged a bigger world beyond our borders to reiterate his support for the "war on terrorism."
No doubt the party’s consultants are advising Mr. Edwards, and other Democratic contenders, that such subjects bring only pain and no gain. Every poll indicates that defense and foreign policy are advantageous to Republicans. Every expert knows voters tune out topics like foreign aid and international treaties.
There is, however, at least one benefit for Mr. Kerry in speaking out on those faraway places and problems. While his rivals sound as if they’re campaigning for the offices they already occupy, he sounds as if he is running for President.
In a sense, Mr. Kerry enjoys an unfair advantage that mitigates the burden of his home state. He’s a decorated Vietnam veteran whose Navy service may help shield him from attacks on his patriotism. Throughout his years in the Senate, that credential has allowed him to investigate and criticize disturbing excesses of American policy abroad, as he did when he probed U.S. aid to the contra gangsters in Nicaragua. (That rather lonely crusade made him a target of the notorious Arkansas Project, funded by Republican billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife to bring down President Clinton.)
Whether Mr. Kerry can engage the electorate in a discussion of America’s global responsibilities is far from certain. His own dispassionate style may hinder him. Yet he deserves great credit for reclaiming international leadership for his party when others cannot or will not.
You may reach Joe Conason via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.