The suggestion that terrorists support Sen. John F. Kerry for president is ugly, but basically silly. The suggestion that Kerry supports the terrorists is flat-out disgusting. President Bush has allowed surrogates to spread the former idea, but he himself has helped to promote the latter. Last week, Bush declared that Kerry's criticism of him and his Iraq policy "can embolden an enemy" and called Kerry "destructive" to the war on terror.
Since election day 2000 and through his first term, Bush has talked a better game of democratic values than he has played. And he is not one for nuances in any event. But the point here is not subtle: The right to criticize the policies of those in power is not just one of democracy's fringe benefits; it is essential to making the democratic machinery work. And questions of war and peace -- dead young Americans, dead Iraqis, a radicalized Middle East, billions of dollars: Was it worth all this? -- are the ones that need democracy the most. Why would any president even wish to plunge this country into war and keep it there without a level of support from the citizenry that is strong enough to survive the obvious counterarguments?
Bush's own campaign strategy has put the events of 9/11 and their aftermath at the center of this election. The president asks to be reelected based on the claim that his response to that event has been a success. It would be convenient for him if any challenge to this notion were considered beyond the pale. Increasingly convenient, in fact, as the word "success" seems less and less applicable. But Bush's convenience is not what this election is about.
This attempt to delegitimize criticism rather than rebut it comes as part three of a three-part Republican strategy. (At least we hope there are only three parts.) Part one was the first wave of Swift boat ads (and the ridiculous hoo-ha around them), raising questions about Kerry's Vietnam service. From there it was an easy leap to part two, the second Swift boat wave and the accompanying fuss about Kerry's leadership of the Vietnam antiwar movement. Part three drives it all home: As during Vietnam, so during Iraq. The guy is still at it, disloyally attacking his own country in wartime and giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
As this page noted during the second Swift boat attack, the Vietnam antiwar movement (or at least the part of it Kerry was associated with) was the essence of patriotism, trying to rescue our country from a terrible mistake and to prevent the waste of any more young lives. Those who attack Kerry today for opposing the war back then overlook the fact that the country came to agree with him. If Kerry and others had refrained from criticism out of a crude notion of patriotism and a misguided "respect" for American troops, many more of those troops would be long dead today.
Kerry's position on Iraq is not a model of clarity and consistency. His critique of the Bush policy has the tang of opportunism. But he is more right than wrong, certainly more right than Bush, and in any event more within his rights to make the argument than Bush is in trying to suppress it. And, as with Vietnam, the nation's policy is gradually shifting Kerry's way. Would Bush have made even the halfhearted efforts of recent weeks to share the burden and direction of the war with the United Nations if he hadn't been looking over his shoulder at the Democratic candidate for his job? To accuse Kerry of aiding the enemy while taking his advice is despicable.
Compared with Kerry, George W. Bush is a coward. This is not a reference to their respective activities during Vietnam. It refers to the current election campaign. Bush happily benefits from the slime his supporters are spreading but refuses to take responsibility for it or to call point-blank for it to stop. He got away with this when the prime mover was the shadowy Swift boats group. Will he get away with it when the accusers are his own vice president, high officials of his own administration (Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage) and members of Congress from his own party (House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert or Sen. Orrin Hatch)? The answer is yes: Based on recent experience, he probably will get away with it.