The issue isn’t Vietnam

It's the future. Democrats need to focus their campaign on which party is best able to fix the mess in Iraq and create jobs at home.

Topics: Iraq war, Unemployment

Face it. We got sucker-punched. Relentlessly, Republicans and the media taunted the Democrats: Don’t be negative. John Kerry ran a clean, upbeat convention, showing that he could. Bush appeared to promise the same.

Then they did what they did. The result was two conventions about Kerry, none about Bush. There was virtually nothing about the past four years, nothing about the four that lie ahead. The Bush motto: Nice guys finish last.

Now Bush will close in for the kill. Next up: Kerry and the antiwar radicals. Brace for it.

As it happens, I knew John Kerry back in 1971 — the only time our paths have crossed. We had small offices next to each other in an old building in Cambridge, Mass. I was organizing college students for George McGovern. He was organizing Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

Here’s one truth about those days: There were lots of big-mouthed radicals around. There were street corner Marxists with Viet Cong flags. They had big revolutionary dreams. And they got a lot of attention.

Kerry wasn’t one of them. Like the McGovern kids, he had a serious political goal — to end the war. Only, by organizing veterans, he was doing it the hard way.

When the Swift Boat Veterans for Bush restart their engines, Kerry needs to hit back. But let’s hear an answer that’s also about the present and the future.

The argument isn’t about patriotism. It’s about judgment. We didn’t oppose the Vietnam War because we favored Hanoi. We opposed it because it was a lost cause. South Vietnam had a weak government, a weak army, indefensible borders, a hostile population and an implacable insurgency. The Vietnam War was a military, political and strategic mistake.

Just like Iraq.

The ongoing issue touches on a great American divide. Some believe a citizen has a duty to think and a right to question. Others claim that patriotism and obedience are the same thing. That divide existed 30 years ago, and it exists today. The American public always has a generous impulse to trust the government and its leaders. But there come moments, now and then, when trust has been betrayed. At such moments, dissent is essential.

This is such a moment. Most of us — even among those old enough to have played a role in the debates of the Vietnam era — no longer care who took what position over that war. But we all care about Iraq. We care about the war on now, which Bush is fixing to lose. We care about the damage already done to America’s world position. We care about the damage coming as things get worse. We care about the soldiers dying now — for a mistake.

Can this mistake be fixed? No one can say. We only know that on the present course we are losing. On the present course we will be chased out of Iraq, sooner or later. Perhaps only after thousands more have died.

Let me propose three key Democratic messages from here on in: First, we need to change course in Iraq. The election is about the future, not Vietnam. And it’s only loosely and symbolically about what Bush did to get us into Iraq, or why. It’s about what we must do now, as soldiers die and Iraq unravels. Bush has no idea. Kerry has one: to get some help from those who were once our friends. It won’t be the final word, but it’s a start.

Second message: The American jobs machine has stalled — and Bush doesn’t care. August’s payroll report showed this again. In March, when the commentariat decided that the economy would be Bush’s issue, we got 300,000 new jobs. In August we got fewer than half that. And June and July were worse.

Bush remains the no-jobs president. Over the past three months, the country has failed to create enough jobs to absorb new workers, let alone move back toward full employment. We still have around a million fewer payroll jobs than we did when Bush took office four years ago. We are several millions short of official predictions made just last year. We are at least 5 million decent payroll jobs short of what we should have by now.

Bush said nothing last week to suggest that he has the slightest idea how to create jobs. And his one previous idea — tax cuts for the rich — didn’t work out. (The truth about that, of course, is that it was never meant to.)

Kerry is committed on the jobs question. But he should now hit on the reality that for working Americans recovery is not happening at all, because nothing has yet been done to make it happen. We need action, next year, not just to manage a growing economy but to actually create one. And with profits falling and interest rates going up, it may not be easy.

Here’s one idea. Kerry could double the size of his proposed revenue-sharing program for state and local governments — to $50 billion in the first year. That would allow states and localities to stop damaging budget cuts affecting schools and healthcare. It might even permit them to add some new jobs.

Kerry could also promise a well-funded public infrastructure bank, expanding public capital investment, which we badly need. He could consider a partial payroll-tax holiday for a year or two, helping working families pay their bills. He could go even further and announce a public jobs program. It has been a while, but we’ve done that before, when it was needed, to pretty good effect.

The final message: We need to do what it takes. And we will.

James K. Galbraith organized a conference on the “Crisis in the Eurozone” at the University of Texas at Austin on November 3-4. Papers and presentations can be found at, along with a video archive of the full meeting.

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