It’s the war, stupid. John Kerry’s new alliance with Bill Clinton and former White House operatives, such as spokesperson Joe Lockhart, is supposed to reflect the Democratic nominee’s emphasis on “pocketbook issues” like the economy and domestic issues.
It won’t work.
The first column I wrote for Gay City News predicted that the Republican fund-raising advantage—before Kerry caught up, the Bush-Cheney team was many times richer in April—would be of little use. War events would dominate the news. So, let’s recall the Clinton campaign’s famous war room slogan from 1992—“It’s the economy, stupid”—and on the occasion of the death of the thousandth servicemember in Iraq, replace “economy” with “war.”
Kerry’s campaign has over-emphasized his Vietnam military service allowing Bush to transform the campaign into a referendum on Kerry’s character. In his acceptance speech, Kerry failed to detail Bush’s mishandling of the Iraq war, or to provide an alternative foreign policy. A candidate running against an incumbent president has the burden of proof. He has to show why he is the better choice. Kerry didn’t do that in his acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention in July and since then it has been downhill.
The true size of Bush’s lead in public opinion polls following the Republic National Convention last week is unknown at this time, but one unhappy fact is clear. After months of basically static polling numbers between them, the first major breakout is in Bush’s favor.
This is bad news for Kerry, but hardly fatal.
The Republicans did stay on message during their convention: “We fight terrorism; the U.S.A. faces a new international threat in Islamic fundamentalism; thus we are the team you can trust.” The GOP ticket’s skill as blunt communicators is only half the story.
Just days after disseminating this message, Chechen terrorists took hostage Russian school children, and in the ensuing violence 338 people are dead. Over the past two weeks, including bombings in the Moscow subway station, more than 500 Russian civilians have been killed by terrorism. These horrific events will sustain the GOP “safety” rhetoric.
August was a good month for Bush. In Najaf, the U.S military seemed to have subdued a violent insurgency by the followers of Moktada al-Sadr, the renegade Shiite cleric. In combined air and ground operations, the U.S. nearly flattened the ancient city, site of one of Shia’s holiest shrines, the equivalent of say, St. Patrick’s Cathedral to America’s Roman Catholics.
From a military standpoint, the conquest of Najaf was a positive development because fighting an ongoing war with the Shiites, particularly those led by al-Sadr, is bad news. The Shiites form Iraq’s largest religious group and were brutally oppressed by Saddam Hussein, a Sunni. In theory, the Shiite underclasses should support the United States occupation. They vociferously don’t.
It is not a coincidence that in a newly-liberated nation of satellite dishes and televisions, the Shiites in the teeming slum of Sadr City have staged an uprising just days after the conclusion of the Republican National Convention and the GOP’s cagily optimistic message of “safety with us.”
That optimism is shattered. Between Saturday and Wednesday, September 8, 17 U.S. servicemembers were killed in combat. In June, 42 service members were casualties, in August, 66. After one week in September the total is already 24. At the rate of three combat deaths a day, the nation will suffer an even greater toll in military losses than April’s 80 deaths during the fierce urban combat in rebel-held Falluja.
In short, U.S. forces are under constant attack. In March there were 700 insurgent assaults against U.S. patrols. In August, just two months after Iraqis allegedly assumed sovereignty of their nation, the number had sky rocketed to 2,700 assaults.
The United States is at war in Iraq and American servicemembers are dying and being wounded every day. The combat they face is as severe as anything soldiers experienced in the streets of France and Germany in World War II.
Surpassing 1, 000 war deaths will increase news coverage of Bush’s handling of the war. It will become harder for Kerry to pound away at the administration’s failed domestic policies.
But there is news that Kerry can use. According to The New York Times, the Pentagon has conceded that central Iraq, the so-called Sunni Triangle, is in rebel control, perhaps undermining January’s scheduled national elections. At the same press briefing, the Washington Post reported that the training of Iraq forces is going slowly, with only 95,000 troops, none of whom are battle-tested, supposedly ready to take on the insurgents.
This rare candor offers Kerry ammunition that he is wise to expend in delineating how he “would do everything differently in Iraq.”
Chronic unemployment is a grave domestic concern, along with lower wage scales and lack of health care insurance—all genuine sources of voters’ anger with the Bush administration and potent political weapons for the Democrats. It behooves Kerry to avail himself of this discontent.
However, as events in Iraq prove, Kerry must first demonstrate that he has a cogent, militarily sound plan to end the war raging in Iraq and prevent the further loss of American lives.