All Things to All People

By DAVID BROOKS

The New York Times

July 31, 2004

BOSTON There were so many military men at the Democratic convention I almost expected John Kerry to mount the stage in full body armor and recite the war speech from "Henry V." As it is, he called for bulking up the military, doubling the size of the Special Forces and crushing the terrorists. He hit Bush from the right, and when he got around to bashing the Saudis, I thought I'd wandered into a big meeting of The Weekly Standard editorial board.

Not only that, Kerry's speech followed an all-hawk medley. Gen. John Shalikashvili called for appreciably increasing the size of the Army. Joe Lieberman called for muscular and idealistic internationalism. Joe Biden said we must "win the death struggle between freedom and radical fundamentalism." Gen. Wesley Clark said we're in "a life or death struggle" against terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.

John Edwards gave a speech that eschewed talk about Halliburton, W.M.D., misleading the country into war - the entire liberal catechism. Instead he talked about defeating "every enemy in this new world" and confronting Syria and Iran so they don't interfere with the emergence of a democratic Iraq.

Around the arena I spotted some of the people most often talked about as senior officials in a Kerry administration: Richard Holbrooke, Biden, Rand Beers and Dick Gephardt. On the international economy side: Roger Altman, Steve Rattner, John Spratt. On Thursday night I saw Mr. Sober and Serious himself, Robert Rubin, sitting next to Teresa. These are tough centrists from the Washington-Wall Street axis who would be heroes in any crisis.

And so I dared to dream. Maybe the Democratic Party is going to recapture the security policy credibility it had during the Truman and Kennedy years. Maybe this display of McCainiac muscular moderation is not just a costume drama, but the real deal. Maybe hope is really on the way!

I should never have gone back and read the speech again. I should never have gone back on Friday morning, in the unforgiving light of day, and re-examined the words Kerry had so forcefully uttered the night before.

What an incoherent disaster. When you actually read for content, you see that the speech skirts almost every tough issue and comes out on both sides of every major concern. The Iraq section is shamefully evasive. He can't even bring himself to use the word "democratic" or to contemplate any future for Iraq, democratic or otherwise. He can't bring himself to say whether the war was a mistake or to lay out even the most meager plan for moving forward. For every gesture in the direction of greater defense spending, there are opposing hints about reducing our commitments and bringing the troops home.

He proves in the speech that he can pronounce the word "alliances," and alliances are important, but alliances for what? You can't base an entire foreign policy on process.

Then I remembered that, of course, the Great Co-opter has to try gauzily to please everyone. He has to play to the 86 percent of the delegates who say the U.S. should have stayed out of Iraq, as well as the Clintonite foreign policy elites who supported the war. He has to play to the Sharptons as well as the Liebermans.

And it all brings back the memories of Kerry the senator. For though convention viewers may not be aware of it, Kerry has actually had a career since his four months in Vietnam - mostly in the Senate. It's not true that Kerry is a flaming lefty (he's a genuine budget hawk and he voted for welfare reform), but he was wrong about just about every major foreign policy judgment of the last two decades. He voted against the first gulf war, against many major weapons systems. He fought to reduce the defense budget. He opposed the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe in the early 1980's. He supported the nuclear freeze. His decision to authorize war in Iraq but vote against financing the occupation is the least intellectually coherent position of all possible alternatives.

So now I'm disillusioned. What the Democratic Party is going through is not yet a genuine muscular centrist revival. As a friend joked, from the voters of Iowa to the delegates in Boston, there's been a vast left-wing conspiracy to present a candidate who looks like a muscular moderate, but they picked someone who is not in his heart of hearts a muscular moderate, or anything else.