Right Hook

Taranto, Kristol and others trash Kerry for "flip-flopping" over Iraq. Plus: Limbaugh and Savage mock Clinton's heart surgery.

Published September 10, 2004 12:16AM (EDT)

The war in Iraq is no doubt a critical issue for the presidential campaign and beyond, but election watchers on both sides of the race contend that it's still difficult to pin down just what John Kerry plans to do about U.S. military operations and the greater struggle to bring stability to the war-torn nation. A number of Democrats have expressed concern that Kerry's message on Iraq remains unclear. While his consistent attacks on Bush's misleading case for war and blatantly ill-planned occupation may be well-founded, they've also been essentially backward looking.

As Kerry continued to condemn Bush's Iraq policy this week, calling it "the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time" and reiterating that he would never go to war "without a plan to win the peace," conservative commentators played up Kerry's seemingly elusive position on what the United States should do next. Several columnists and bloggers highlighted an article published on Monday by ABC News columnist Teddy Davis:

"There is no way to know where Kerry will ultimately end up on Iraq. For now, his plan over the next 56 days is to focus on the economy.

"But even if that strategy worked in 1992, Labor Day demonstrated that even when Kerry comes out swinging on domestic policy, he is going to be asked about Iraq.

"As Kerry said to the Democratic Leadership Council in New York on June 29, 2002, when he was trying to distinguish himself in the early field of presidential contenders, 'The Presidency has three key job descriptions: chief executive of the fiscal and domestic policies of the United States -- head of state and therefore the nation's chief diplomat -- and Commander in Chief of the Nation's military forces. We dare not avoid discussing two-thirds of the job.'"

UCLA law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh (The Volokh Conspiracy) says that the lack of a clear position on the future of Iraq will doom Kerry.

"If Davis is right -- and his column seems to support that position -- and if enough of the public ends up having that perception, that can't possibly be good for Kerry."

Opinion Journal editor James Taranto casts a jaded eye on the recent spate of advice from high-profile Dems that Kerry focus on domestic issues down the home stretch.

"Ignore national security, avoid Vietnam, concentrate on domestic issues -- well, it did work for Clinton. But a 1992 strategy makes no sense in 2004. There are many differences between the two elections, but the most salient is that today we are at war. A candidate who has nothing to say about national security cannot expect to win the White House during wartime."

But if Taranto goes out on a limb with Kerry having "nothing to say" about national security, it snaps off under him when he anoints filmmaker Michael Moore a Kerry foreign policy advisor and wonders if the senior Dems' advice isn't really just euthanasia for the campaign.

"In his Rocky Horror speech last Thursday night [a reference to Kerry's midnight campaign appearance in Ohio directly following Bush's convention speech], Kerry presented himself to the nation as a bitter weakling who can't abide criticism and who takes his foreign-policy cues from Michael Moore. That is political poison. Could it be that [chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council Sen. Evan] Bayh and Clinton have written off Kerry's chances of winning the presidency and are urging him instead to follow a path that will allow him to lose with dignity, so as to minimize their party's down-ballot losses?"

Other right-wingers are running with the "flip-flop" theme flogged by the Bush campaign. Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol has his own twist on what Kerry is saying about Bush's war policy:

"John Kerry said that Iraq was 'the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.' Translation: We would be better off if Saddam Hussein were still in power."

While Kristol himself has been sharply critical of Bush's Iraq policy -- last April he wrote, "It is clear that there have been failures in planning and in execution, failures that have been evident for most of the last year" -- he pegs his criticism solely to the notion that Kerry can't make up his mind whether leaving Saddam in power was a good idea or not.

A policy of containment was "not an unheard of point of view," writes Kristol. "Indeed, as President Bush pointed out today, it was Howard Dean's position during the primary season. On December 15, 2003, in a speech at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, Dean said that 'the capture of Saddam Hussein has not made America safer.' Dean also said, 'The difficulties and tragedies we have faced in Iraq show the administration launched the war in the wrong way, at the wrong time, with inadequate planning, insufficient help, and at the extraordinary cost, so far, of $166 billion.'

"But who challenged Dean immediately? John Kerry. On December 16, at Drake University in Iowa, Kerry asserted that 'those who doubted whether Iraq or the world would be better off without Saddam Hussein, and those who believe today that we are not safer with his capture, don't have the judgment to be president or the credibility to be elected president.'

"Kerry was right then."

For his part, National Review Online editor and blogger Rich Lowry says Bush's Iraq policy has flaws -- but the exploding cost to taxpayers isn't one of them.

"Just read Kerry's Iraq speech. It's pretty contemptible. There are plenty of legitimate criticisms to be made of Bush's Iraq policy, but apparently the only one that really counts in Kerry's mind is that its costing $200 billion. He repeats that figure over and over again. It is scandalous that it is costing so much because all that money would be better spent here at home, on after-schools programs for kids, on the COPS program, etc. This is a speech of a man who can't be taken seriously on national security."

The 1,000th-death media conspiracy
Talk radio host and blogger Hugh Hewitt was beside himself on Tuesday that the New York Times would offer a "booster shot" to the Kerry campaign by reporting on the rising combat toll in Iraq. He labeled a Monday Times story a "blueprint for Kerry's recovery," after Adam Nagourney reported that, "in the next few weeks, the nation is likely to mark the thousandth death of an American soldier in Iraq, a moment that will probably bring a reappraisal of the war that Mr. Bush advocated." (The Times piece was published ahead of the news on Tuesday of the 1,000th U.S. death.)

"Who said that fatality number 1000 was more important that [sic] any that went before?" Hewitt wrote. "This isn't a Hall of Fame home run watch, and I am amazed that the Times is using military casualties to build a potential toehold for the Kerry campaign."

Blogger Scott Sala of Slant Point agrees with Hewitt that the 1,000th death makes a "convenient sound bite." He seems a bit confused, though, as to what news is appropriate for the Kerry campaign to discuss.

"John Kerry pounced on this number as an opportunity to fire up the anti-war, anti-Bush vote.

'''Today marks a tragic milestone in the war in Iraq; more than 1,000 of America's sons and daughters have now given their lives on behalf of their country, on behalf of freedom, the war on terror,' Kerry said as he arrived in Cincinnati on a campaign stop.

"Why did he need to say this, when it was a news headline across the world?"

Online watchdog Media Matters for America reports that on his Sept. 7 show radio host Rush Limbaugh accused the media and anti-Bush liberals of "breathlessly" awaiting more U.S. casualties.

"Now, you know, the media and the Democrat critics of the president are breathlessly -- and I mean this, folks, I'm not -- I'm not exaggerating. They are breathlessly awaiting the death of the 1,000th soldier. It will be a milestone.

"I -- I can't believe it. They're anxiously awaiting this so as to try to make political hay out of it against Bush. So we're breathlessly -- [panting] -- eagerly anticipating -- on the Left -- the death of the 1,000th soldier so it can be exploited. It's sick."

Limbaugh then diminished the U.S. death toll by way of some intriguing statistical comparison.

"But the statistic I saw -- do you know how many students commit suicide on American university campuses in America every year? The number is 1,000. Do you know how many Americans die on a highways [sic] every year in this country? Try 47,000 to 50,000. And here we've got 1,000 deaths in Vietnam [sic: Iraq, as noted on rushlimbaugh.com] in a war for the defense of this country and the insurance of our freedom, and everybody says these aren't worth it."

Wishing Clinton well?
On the same show, Limbaugh saw fit to ridicule the severity of former President Bill Clinton's heart problems.

"I understand it was gonna be a triple bypass but then Clinton figured out his sympathy rating would go up to 87 percent with a quadruple. So [laughter] -- bada-bump-buh. [laughter]"

And his classy colleague Michael Savage had this to say on the Tuesday edition of Savage Nation:

"We heard, of course, that hell was full and therefore Mr. Clinton will be with us for a while longer -- but we wish him the best nevertheless. But what's the sanctity all of a sudden? All of a sudden everyone loves Bill Clinton. He reinvented himself.

"And suddenly everything he did to America's been forgotten by George [W.] Bush, and everyone else. I seem to remember what he did to America. What's he all of a sudden -- hushed tones about Bill Clinton. I think he was the worst skunk that ever invaded the White House, to be honest with you. I think he was pure evil...

"I don't wanna go through the whole litany. So what, I'm supposed to sit here because he's a former president and go, 'We wish him well' -- why? Why? Tell me why. Tell me why. Anyone got an answer to that one?"

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Read more of "Right Hook," Salon's weekly roundup of conservative commentary and analysis here.

By Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2004 Elections Bill Clinton Iraq John F. Kerry D-mass. Middle East