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Thursday, August 12, 2004

POLITICAL MEMO New York Times > Bush's Mocking Drowns Out Kerry's Explanation of Iraq Vote

August 12, 2004

WASHINGTON, Aug. 11 - For five days now, as the long-distance arguments between President Bush and Senator John Kerry have focused on the wisdom of invading Iraq, Mr. Kerry has struggled to convince his audiences that his vote to authorize the president to use military force was a far, far cry from voting for a declaration of war.
So far, his aides and advisers concede, he has failed to get his message across, as Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney have mocked his efforts as "a new nuance" that amount to more examples of the senator's waffling.
Mr. Kerry's problems began last week when President Bush challenged him for a yes-or-no answer on a critical campaign issue: If Mr. Kerry knew more than a year ago what he knows today about the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, would he still have voted to authorize the use of military force to oust Saddam Hussein?
As Mr. Bush surely knew, it is a question that can upset the difficult balance Mr. Kerry must strike. He has to portray himself as tough and competent enough to be commander in chief, yet appeal to the faction of Democrats that hates the war and eggs him on to call Mr. Bush a liar.
It is a problem that has dogged Mr. Kerry since he walked through the snows of Iowa and New Hampshire, and suffered the barbs of Vermont's former governor, Howard Dean, who made Mr. Kerry's vote to authorize action an issue. Now Mr. Bush has taken up where Dr. Dean left off.
"Kerry has always had this vulnerability of looking flip-floppy on the issue and Bush is using this very shrewdly," said Walter Russell Mead, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. He added "Being silent on the question makes him look evasive, and saying something, anything, gets him in trouble with one side of his party or another."
Mr. Kerry's friends concede the first rounds have gone to the president - "it's frustrating as hell," Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware said on Wednesday - but Mr. Bush has his own problems, since the argument re-ignites the question of whether he rushed to war without a plan about what to do next.
It is an issue on which Mr. Bush can still sound defensive. On Wednesday in Albuquerque, he responded to Mr. Kerry's suggestion that the United States could begin pulling troops out of Iraq next year by saying, "I know what I'm doing when it comes to winning this war, and I'm not going to be sending mixed signals" by discussing pullouts.
Mr. Bush also reaffirmed his stance on the war when he challenged Mr. Kerry. "We did the right thing,'' the president said on Friday, "and the world is better off for it."
Across the weekend, the Kerry campaign debated how Mr. Kerry should respond. "There were a lot of ideas," said one official, "from silence, to throwing the question back in the president's face."
But the decision, in the end, was Mr. Kerry's. He chose to take the bait on Monday at the edge of the Grand Canyon. Asked by a reporter, he said he would have voted for the resolution - even in the absence of evidence of weapons of mass destruction - before adding his usual explanation that he would have subsequently handled everything leading up to the war differently.
Mr. Bush, sensing he had ensnared Mr. Kerry, stuck in the knife on Tuesday, telling a rally in Panama City, Fla., that "he now agrees it was the right decision to go into Iraq." The Kerry camp says that interpretation of Mr. Kerry's words completely distorted the difference between a vote to authorize war and a decision to commit troops to the battlefield.
Mr. Kerry's answer is being second-guessed among his supporters, some of whom argued that he should have been more wary of the trap.
"I wish he had simply said no president in his right mind would ask the Senate to go to war against a country that didn't have weapons that pose an imminent threat," said one of Mr. Kerry's Congressional colleagues and occasional advisers.
Senator Biden argued that Mr. Kerry is being "asked to explain Bush's failure through his own vote. I saw a headline that said 'Kerry Would Have Gone to War.' That's bull. He wouldn't have. Not the way Bush did. But that wasn't the choice at the time - the choice was looking for a way to hold Saddam accountable."
Such distinctions don't exactly ring as campaign themes. On Wednesday, Vice President Cheney did his best to worsen Mr. Kerry's troubles. He issued a statement noting that Mr. Kerry "voted for the war" but turned against it "when it was politically expedient" and now has his aides "saying that his vote to authorize force wasn't really a vote to go to war."
"We need a commander in chief who is steady and steadfast," he said.
Rand Beers, a former National Security Council official in the Clinton and Bush administrations before he left to help Mr. Kerry formulate his foreign policy positions, said in an interview on Wednesday: "We have said we think there are four elements" in Mr. Bush's approach to the war that are clearly different from how Mr. Kerry would have handled the confrontation with Mr. Hussein.
"Rushing to war is one, doing it without enough allies is two, doing it without equipping our troops adequately is three, and doing it without an adequate plan to win the peace is a fourth," Mr. Beers said. "If you want to add a fifth, it's going to war without examining the quality of your intelligence."
In fact, in interviews since the start of the year, Mr. Kerry has been relatively consistent in explaining his position.
Mr. Bush may be seeking his moment now because polls show that Mr. Kerry's approach to Iraq is resonating with voters as strongly as Mr. Bush's - in some cases more strongly. That may explain why Mr. Kerry is willing to suggest some dates for the start of troop withdrawals, something he would not do a month ago.
Mr. Bush still has an edge, polls show, in the handling of terrorism. On Wednesday his campaign released a new television ad in which the president discusses the need for pre-emptive action then says "I can't imagine the great agony of a mom or a dad having to make the decision about which child to pick up first on September the 11th.''
It is the third spot the campaign has released in the last two weeks that refers to terrorism, the first in which Mr. Bush speaks of it himself.
Democrats said that the Bush campaign's decision to have the president refer so much to the Sept. 11 attackswas a sign of desperation. But Mr. Kerry's team is still trying to figure out how their man can crystallize a message on Iraq. "You have to hand it to Bush and Cheney,'' Mr. Biden said. "When it comes to using the big megaphone of the presidency, they are the masters.''

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