Kerry for president

The measure of the remarkable nature of this year’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for president has been the emergence of Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as the front-runner and probable victor. Superficially, at least, he is an unlikely standard bearer.

Unlike his chief challenger, Sen. John Edwards, of North Carolina, who’s a telegenic and readily likable guy who connects easily with people, Kerry seems stiff at times, and he lacks a personal touch. Yet Democrats have favored him in 15 of 17 elections so far. Why? Because they believe he is the candidate best able to defeat George W. Bush in November.

They look at Edwards and see a man whose political experience is limited to a single term in the Senate. That’s equivalent to the experience Bush had—one term as governor of Texas—when he became president, but Democrats want their candidate to be stronger than that. Kerry, with his nearly two decades in the Senate and his extensive experience, especially in foreign policy, is a Washington veteran who knows how the Capitol works and would be able to step into the presidency with few hitches.

Kerry is also a legitimate war hero who took that heroism a step further, returning from Vietnam disillusioned by that horrific folly and becoming a founding member and early leader of the critically important antiwar group Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Compared to Bush, who used family pull to get into the Texas Air National Guard to avoid war duty and then went AWOL for a year, Kerry is the real deal.

That’s a good thing, because so far the Democrats have failed to present a defense-policy alternative to the president’s unilateralism and reckless bellicosity. Bush has signaled that he intends to push the fear button and make his activism in the face of terrorism a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, and at this point most Americans stand behind him.

Since Vietnam, the Democrats have waffled on the issue of the appropriate use of power. Now is the time for a new praxis. America has no choice but to continue as the first among world leaders, but it needs a strategy that protects America while fostering liberal democracy elsewhere. Bush’s radicalism has given the illusion of protection, but it has done little to foster liberalism—as in Afghanistan, which he’s largely abandoned to the regional warlords. Kerry must come up with a workable alternative if he is to win in November.