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Kerry Fiddles While He Could Be Burning Bush


We are barely a week into the general phase of what is touted as an epic, epochal battle for the White House, and already I suspect the Democrats would be mortified if some pollster dared to ask the two most obvious questions: Do you find the campaign so far engaging, or dull? Are you tired of it yet?

The Republicans are another story. A campaign in which the Great Middle does not see much of a stake is their fondest wish. And in the past couple of weeks, with John Kerry's complicity, they are herding the "public dialogue" (meaning the White House press corps) back in that direction. It doesn't much matter that they are widely criticized over gay marriage or the use of 9/11 footage in their first campaign ads--any day that the Bush gang keeps the public mind off the many messes it's already made is a good day.

Kerry, meantime, has spent the two or three weeks since his nomination became inevitable merely coasting along, offering up the same stump-tested applause lines wherever he goes and giving every appearance of turning back into the stolid, charmless retail campaigner he's always been. As Ron Brownstein wrote in the L.A. Times, "the Massachusetts senator stands as the presumptive nominee with many unsure whether he intends to steer the party to the left or back toward the centrist themes associated with Bill Clinton--or impose no distinctive direction at all."

But Kerry and the Democrats' most glaring weakness is not ideological. It's their failure to keep going after Bush's record in a concerted way. Kerry's people were said to be angry that DNC chair Terry McAuliffe brought up the Guard issue "too soon." That's just daft. There is wreckage enough in Bush's wake to keep the White House off-balance on a regular basis throughout the campaign season, and Kerry loses ground (invisibly, for now) every day that he keeps quiet about the particulars.

There's only one logical place to start, and that is where Bush has staked his claim to reelection. Speaking to the New York Times, one highly placed Republican dismissed the flap over Bush's 9/11-themed ads this way: "Are we on the Democrats' issue of health care, or are we on the Republican issue of national security? On Wednesday we rolled out the [TV ads]--we changed the tone fundamentally. [The Democrats] missed the opportunity to tell the American people what the campaign is about. This is how the president has framed the question before the American people."

One could go further than that. National security isn't just Bush's main issue; it's the only one he's got. And even there he is hugely vulnerable on numerous counts. There is more than enough bad news to keep Scott McClellan sputtering into his lapel pin from now to November, if the Democrats have the stomach to push matters.


Osama. International wire stories have reported for the past month that the U.S. has redoubled its pursuit of bin Laden and may have him pinned inside a 10-mile-by-10-mile stretch of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. There's a good chance that he or his carcass will be produced before the election. Kerry needs to air a few questions before he's drowned out in the fanfare. Why did the Bush administration drain resources away from its offensive against the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan to invade Iraq? And what additional damage has been wrought or planned in the meantime by people left on the loose? The Taliban is resurgent, and so is al Qaeda, which in the past year has taken credit for attacks in Saudi Arabia and assaults against U.S. troops in Iraq. And that is to say nothing about the additional recruits drawn to bin Laden's cause by the prolonged U.S. chase after him.


The 9/11 investigation. Two simple, soundbite-ready talking points: Why did the White House ignore summer 2001 intelligence warnings that something "spectacular," probably involving airplanes, was on the way? And why has the administration stonewalled and dragged its feet in response to a congressional investigation and the current 9/11 panel? Hammer hard on the latter. Say that the administration's political concern over its own fate is being placed above the interests of homeland security, which demand that we understand exactly what happened in the interest of avoiding similar disasters in the future. Say, too, that Bush's actions are an insult to the memory of 9/11 victims.

If Kerry's instincts about the National Guard story are any indication, he probably intends to let this issue lie until the Kean panel releases its 9/11 report in late July. Big mistake. Put it out there and let it start percolating now, and you ensure that more people will be paying attention when the report eventually drops.

The Department of Homeland Security. Here's one of the most underreported stories of the war on terror: Tom Ridge's DHS is still pretty much the blank facade it was on the day Bush et al. conjured it into being. The department's ostensible purpose is to collect and examine intelligence about security threats from a multitude of sources and distill it all into something timely and useful. It's a joke. DHS still lacks a software-architecture plan for doing its job, much less the funding to implement one. There isn't much to the enterprise beyond a letterhead on stationery.


Iraq. The administration dummied up intelligence reports about weapons of mass destruction that Saddam no longer possessed and sought to mislead the public about a fictitious bin Laden/Saddam connection--all to justify an invasion that has cost hundreds of American lives and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars before it's through. And they did so with no plan for administering postwar Iraq or returning it to native control. The continued fighting has rallied thousands of young volunteers from throughout the region to the cause of jihad against the American presence. How exactly does all this improve U.S. national security for the long haul? Highlight the war profiteering by Dick Cheney's old company, Halliburton.


The Plame/Novak affair. The recurring theme in each of the previous cases is that politics always trump serious questions of national security in this White House. The outing of Valerie Plame makes the point manifest in a way that's eminently digestible on television. Plame's troubles started last summer when her husband, a diplomat named Joseph Wilson, revealed in a New York times op-ed column that the White House knew Saddam was not buying uranium from Niger well before Bush claimed he was in the 2003 State of the Union. Top administration staffers later leaked to several reporters that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent. GOP flack Bob Novak published it. But Plame was an undercover operative, and it happens to be a felony to blow the cover of a spy. Though the matter has barely registered in the news lately, a grand jury is investigating the matter. A few days ago, it subpoenaed telephone records from Air Force One. This could turn into a major legal prosecution, but meanwhile it's astonishing that the Democrats are not selling it more forcefully as political scandal.

Once again, Kerry seems content to play it cautious and hope that others will do his heavy lifting for him. Not bloody likely. If the candidate and the party don't start lighting into Bush soon--not only by public pronouncement, but by spoon-feeding provocative stories to the media as avidly as the Republicans do--Kerry's chance to define Bush before he is defined by Bush may dry up for good.

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