TERRORISM, CHEEZ WHIZ, AND THE VIRTUES OF NUANCE. Matt Bai has an excellent analysis of John Kerry's anti-terrorism policy in the current New York Times Magazine. But perhaps what's most fascinating about it is Bai's sense (he doesn't have much in the way of hard evidence, but I suspect he's right) that Kerry himself is wary of talking much about it for fear of being further labeled as a weak-willed - yes, you guessed it - flip-flopper.
Such is the state of the political dialogue these days. The Republicans put out the word that Kerry is a weathervane, the media pick up on it, and, finally, the candidate himself is stuck with slogans that he probably doesn't fully accept (such as the "war" on terror) for fear of being misunderstood and lampooned.
Based on the very directly stated views of Kerry's likely secretary of state, Richard Holbrooke ("We're not in a war on terror, in the literal sense. The war on terror is like saying 'the war on poverty.' It's just a metaphor. What we're really talking about is winning the ideological struggle so that people stop turning themselves into suicide bombers.") and on Kerry's own lengthy, if indirect, comments, Bai deduces that Kerry's principal weapon against Al Qaeda will be the sort of international policing efforts he's been talking about for years, long before 9/11. Bai writes:
Kerry's view, that the 21st century will be defined by the organized world's struggle against agents of chaos and lawlessness, might be the beginning of a compelling vision. The idea that America and its allies, sharing resources and using the latest technologies, could track the movements of terrorists, seize their bank accounts and carry out targeted military strikes to eliminate them, seems more optimistic and more practical than the notion that the conventional armies of the United States will inevitably have to punish or even invade every Islamic country that might abet radicalism.
And yet, you can understand why Kerry has been so tentative in advancing this idea. It's comforting to think that Al Qaeda might be as easily marginalized as a bunch of drug-running thugs, that an "effective" assault on its bank accounts might cripple its twisted campaign against Americans. But Americans are frightened - an emotion that has benefited Bush, and one that he has done little to dissuade - and many of them perceive a far more existential threat to their lives than the one Kerry describes. In this climate, Kerry's rather dry recitations about money-laundering laws and intelligence-sharing agreements can sound oddly discordant. We are living at a time that feels historically consequential, where people seem to expect - and perhaps deserve - a theory of the world that matches the scope of their insecurity.
Theoretically, Kerry could still find a way to wrap his ideas into some bold and cohesive construct for the next half-century - a Kerry Doctrine, perhaps, or a campaign against chaos, rather than a war on terror - that people will understand and relate to. But he has always been a man who prides himself on appreciating the subtleties of public policy, and everything in his experience has conditioned him to avoid unsubtle constructs and grand designs. His aversion to Big Think has resulted in one of the campaign's oddities: it is Bush, the man vilified by liberals as intellectually vapid, who has emerged as the de facto visionary in the campaign, trying to impose some long-term thematic order on a dangerous and disorderly world, while Kerry carves the globe into a series of discrete problems with specific solutions.
For a better understanding of the intellectually impoverished landscape on which this campaign is being fought, have a look at Jonathan Chait's cover story (sub. req.) in the current New Republic. Chait observes that Kerry is hardly unique in being labeled a "flip-flopper" - that the Republicans also used it to considerable effect against Bill Clinton in 1992 (and, to a lesser extent, in '96) and against Al Gore in 2000.
Chait argues that the "flip-flopper" label is a natural consequence of Clinton's having taken some of the Republicans' favorite issues off the table, such as welfare reform, taxes, the military, and crime. All the Republicans really had left at that point was to claim that Clinton/Gore/Kerry have switched so profoundly on the issues that they don't have the character to be president. Yet as Chait notes, the notion that Kerry has flip-flopped more than George W. Bush has is absurd. Bush has been for and against abortion rights, for and against a Department of Homeland Security, for and against the formation of the 9/11 Commission, even for and against letting national-security adviser Condoleezza Rice testify before Congress. Chait writes:
The alleged character flaws of whomever the Democrats nominate for president change from election to election. But the charge of flip-flopping always plays a central role for a very important reason: It's the natural parry to the Democrats' post-Clinton centrism. The moderation that has characterized the Democratic Party since Clinton has the natural advantage of avoiding unpopular stances. It also has two disadvantages. First, as the party has shifted right, it has forced Democrats in its mainstream to shift along with it. (Hence Kerry's flip-flop on the death penalty.)
Second, New Democrat-style centrism saddles its adherents with positions that straddle the political divide. Kerry supported developing missile defense but not deploying it immediately; he supported NAFTA, which had labor and environmental provisions, but opposed a trade bill that did not. When your position on many issues is "neither too much nor too little," you can appear inconsistent even if you're not. Sure, it doesn't help that Kerry has trouble explaining himself. But even a gifted communicator like Clinton, remember, was widely seen as a waffler.
So why does the label stick to Democrats but not Republicans? Chait argues that it's got a lot to do with the Republicans' superior skills at media manipulation - at establishing a narrative for which the press, ever hungry for perceived character flaws, is all too eager to fill in the details. Chait revisits Kerry's encounter with Cheez Whiz to illuminating effect, noting how much more that seemed to resonate than did another incident in which Bush got peeved at an underling for eating his peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.
"One reason stories about Bush's elitism don't receive the same attention as stories about Kerry's elitism is that the model for the latter is far better entrenched," Chait writes. "This simply reflects one of the most tiresome habits of the political media. Once a narrative template has been established, nearly any fact can be wedged into it."
As Chait further observes, this is a pretty pathetic way to choose a president.