If not murder, John F. Kerry and John Edwards have accused President Bush of something close to criminally negligent homicide in Iraq. "They were wrong and soldiers died because they were wrong," Kerry said of the Bush administration over the weekend.
This is strong language, but not unjustified. Last week's Senate Intelligence Committee report adds to the pile of studies and reportage that has undermined the key reasons Bush gave for going to war: Saddam Hussein's imperial designs, links between Iraq and Al Qaeda, weapons of mass destruction and so on.
The trouble is, both Sens. Kerry and Edwards voted yes on the resolution authorizing the war in Iraq. And now they refuse to say whether they would have supported the resolution if they had known what they know today. Both say they can't be bothered with "hypothetical questions."
But whether it is a hypothetical question depends on how you phrase it. Do they regret these votes? Were their votes a mistake? These are not hypothetical questions. And they are questions the Democratic candidates for president and vice president cannot duck if they wish to attack Bush on Iraq in such morally charged language.
After all, the issue raised by the Senate Intelligence Committee report is not whether the Bush administration bungled the prosecution of the war, or whether there should have been greater international cooperation, or whether the challenges of occupying and rebuilding the country were grossly underestimated. When Kerry says "they were wrong," he is referring to the administration's basic case for going to war. Kerry supported that decision. So did Edwards. Were they wrong? If they won't answer that question, they have no moral standing to criticize Bush.
Reluctance to answer the question is understandable. If they say they stand by their pro-war votes, this makes nonsense of their criticisms of Bush. If they say they were misled or duped by the administration, they look dopey and weak. Many of their Democratic Senate colleagues were skeptical of the administration's evidence even at the time. If Kerry and Edwards tell the probable truth -- that they were deeply dubious about the war but afraid to vote no in the post-9/11 atmosphere and be tarred as lily-livered liberals -- they would win raves from editorial writers for their frankness and courage. And they could stop dreaming of oval offices.
Kerry and Edwards are in a bind. But it is a bind of their own making. The great pity will be if this bind leads the Democratic candidates to back off from their harsh, and largely justified, criticism of Bush. The Democrats could lose a valuable issue, and possibly even the election, because the Democratic candidates were too clever for their own good.
In the past, Kerry has dodged the question of his pro-war vote by saying that he intended to give Bush negotiating leverage and to encourage multilateral action, not to endorse a unilateral American invasion of Iraq. Unfortunately, what he may have intended is not what he voted for. Furthermore, a vote in favor of the war resolution was unavoidably a statement that the various complaints against Hussein did justify going to war against him, if all else failed, whatever caveats and escape hatches were in any individual senator's head.
Kerry and Edwards would like to fudge the issue by conflating it with questions about how the war was prosecuted. Or they say that what matters is where we go from here. It is true that "what now?" is the important policy question. But that doesn't make it the only question. How we got here affects how we get out. And even if it had no practical relevance to our future Iraq policy, hearing how Kerry and Edwards explain their votes to authorize a war they now regard as disastrous would be helpful in assessing their character and judgment.
Their continued refusal to explain would be even more helpful, unfortunately.