Monday, October 18, 2004

Why Kerry?

A few weeks ago a dear friend of deep evangelical persuasion wrote:

"I am always interested when intelligent thoughtful, and insightful people think so differently in some areas than I do. And I am certainly not interested in big time political debate with friends, but was curious as to why...or maybe... if would share your thoughts as to why you would consider voting for Mr. Kerry."

My answer falls in two parts, the first posted in this space under the title 'Why Not Bush?" Here's part two…

If my ballot this year is a vote of no confidence in George W. Bush, it is also a gesture of hope based on what I believe about John Kerry.

I say believe because it is impossible to do anything else. Beyond believing I’m stuck with the dilemma of proving the negative: “Prove you won’t screw this up.” This is part of what got us in trouble in Iraq. “Prove you don’t have the weapons and we don’t mean showing us empty warehouses and laboratories—we know you have them and nothing you say or do will convince us otherwise unless you prove you don’t.” This never had a prayer of working and I have trouble believing I’m the only one who thought so from the outset.

Mr. Bush is in the same quandary today. “Prove to us you won’t keep screwing this up.” This, of course, he cannot do. His line seems to be, “Trust me, this is complicated, I know things, we have to stay the course to change direction.”

David Puttnam told the Los Angeles Times, “There's a wonderful Chinese proverb--it really is a Chinese proverb, not one that I made up--that says if you continue down the road you've purposely taken, you're likely to end up where you seem to be heading.” (L.A. TIMES 12/3/89) Well, where we seem to be heading is crippling deficits, an unconscionable widening of the gap between the wealthiest Americans and all other Americans, steadily diminishing moral authority in the world, a crisis in the U.S. military, an increasingly divided citizenry, an increasingly united alliance of terrorist movements and the growing likelihood of being politically quarantined by nations who have stood shoulder to shoulder with us in the past.

These are trends I believe John Kerry can reverse.

I believe Mr. Kerry sees the world through a more finely ground lens than the President. I believe he understands diplomacy as something more than the art of letting people have your own way. I believe he understands the give and take of true alliances, not just the binary you’re-with-us-or-against-us bluster of the strongest kid on the playground.

I don’t believe John Kerry would ever have put the U.S. military in the position George Bush put them in—specifically in exposing how much thinner U.S. capability is than had been presumed. The sloppiness of that is inexcusable. Following the third debate Mr. Kerry wondered rhetorically, “is that all you have Mr. President?” I think that’s what America’s enemies have been saying for 18 months. “You call that shock and awe? We’ll show you shock and awe.” I believe this administration has emboldened America’s enemies to believe they can absorb more punishment than the U.S. military can dole out. And, since there appear to be no terms under which American allies will accept the deal offered by the Administration and no offer of help the Administration is willing accept from the Allies, we’re in this mostly on our own. The number of countries in the “Coalition of the Willing” is a misdirection. The actual number of troops and the actual dollar amount of their investment is a minute fraction of the investment from the allies in the 1991 action. In the spirit of full disclosure, I was against that one too. But I was in smallish minority on that occasion when, for better or worse, it worked. This intervention has not worked, nor is it likely to work along the lines currently drawn. The U.S. will keep muttering, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” until we end the pretense and put together a coalition capable of cleaning up the mess as well as it can be cleaned. I believe Mr. Kerry can do that. I’m convinced Mr. Bush cannot.

Of course one alternative is slowly bleeding to death a few hundred million dollars at a time. In the old days, aided by the ill-advised and ill-fated invasion of Afghanistan, this was a contributing factor to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Afghanis proved that, with a little help from friends in the West, they could absorb more punishment than the Soviets could afford to deliver. As indeed the U.S. proved it could keep spending on weapons of mass destruction long after it was too late for the Soviets to recast the conflict in more sustainable terms. This lesson was not lost on anyone except, perhaps, the neo-conservatives presently in control of the U.S. government. In fact the report from Mr. Bush’s Iraq Survey Group says the Iraqi’s war plan was based upon an assumption that a weeklong conventional phase of the conflict would give way to a long-term insurgency (pages 65 & 66 of the Comprehensive Report of the Special Advisor to the DCI on
Iraq’s WMD). ''The basic idea of trying to decapitate the regime was still the right approach," Michael O'Hanlon, a military specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington said in a Boston Globe article on October 11, 04. ''But not having a serious plan to deal with insurgency was unconscionable to the point of being incompetent. Not having a backup plan if it failed was foolish."

I suppose you can guess I’m no fan of war as a concept let alone the bloody reality. But even I know that what we saw in Iraq in 2003 was a textbook fight against an overwhelming force. I remember saying as much to my neighbors as U.S. casualties mounted that Spring and suggesting that, at that very moment, someone might be saying, “We’ll give up the country and then kill one of them a day for as long as they can stand it.” Trust me when I say I felt sick at the thought that I might be right…and sicker still as evidence mounts that I was.

I think John Kerry believes peace is a possibility in the general sense of shalom (though I have no idea whether he would employ that language). Shalom is wholeness for everybody. If that seems too high-minded, forgive me for taking such matters so seriously and let’s settle on the notion of win/win solutions as superior to win/lose and most certainly better than lose/win or lose/lose.

I believe Mr. Kerry will stop the hemorrhaging from the U.S. Treasury. I think the Bush economic theory was discredited the last time it was attempted during the 80’s when the poor got poorer, the rich got richer and tens of thousands of mentally disabled people were summarily discharged from government-funded hospitals to become the problem of under-funded state, county and municipal law enforcement. Incidentally this is also the period of U.S. alliance with Saddam Hussein during which his regime was armed with the capacity to produce and deploy weapons of mass destruction—but I digress. Ten Nobel Prize-winning economists endorsed John Kerry in a joint letter saying the Bush Administration had “embarked on a reckless and extreme course that endangers the long-term economic health of our nation.” The 10 say the Bush tax cuts were “poorly designed” and that “fiscal irresponsibility threatens the long-term economic security and prosperity of our nation.” They say the differences between the candidates are “wider than in any other presidential election in our experience.” Kerry, the letter says, “will restore fiscal responsibility" and he "understands that sound economic policy requires a substantial change in direction, and we support him for president." (

Part of Mr. Kerry’s soundness from my point of view is his regard for those who work as well as those whose capital provides jobs. I don’t think Kerry is hostile toward business at all. I think he sees a clear link between those who put capital at risk and those whose labor secures that risk. That means looking out for the solvency of well run companies along with the wellbeing of working Americans, including the swollen ranks of the working poor. That means dealing favorably with the 45 million American who have no health care whatsoever. Mr. Bush keeps returning to the impact of lawsuits on hospitals and I have little doubt he’s partly right. I suspect the far greater impact on hospitals comes from uninsured people who rely on Emergency Room care because they can’t afford office visits. Heck, I’ve been there. Uninsured, marginally employed sick people wait until they can’t wait another minute, then show up the one place that’s mandated by law to treat them whether they can pay or not. Actually, hospitals don’t have to treat poor sick people. They can and many have simply shut the doors to the emergency rooms, protecting profits by shifting the burden to others. It’s a familiar theme by now: Pay me now or pay me later. We have to do better. I believe John Kerry is committed to solving this crisis and I expect Congress to join him.

Of course the simplest course includes living wages for every worker. As I see it, one measure of a president’s term in office is how America’s poorest citizens fared under his Administration. “A rising tide,” the proverb says, “raises all boats.” When some boats are rising and others are being swamped, I generally conclude that what’s truly rising is something other than the tide. So if at the end of the term the wealthy are demonstrably better off and the poor are in demonstrably worse off, I consider the administration a failure in economic terms (I think there have been exceptions to this in my lifetime; I don’t think this is one of them). I think the present Administration has helped the owner at the expense of the worker. John Kerry is committed to helping the worker without unduly burdening the owner. The 10 Nobel Prize-winning economists see it too, noting Mr. Kerry’s commitment “to work with our allies and trading partners to promote global growth that lifts up workers around the world."

I believe John Kerry has access to great talent. In addition to one or more of the Nobel Prize-winners I want see the likes of William Cohen, Madeline Albright, Wesley Clark, Robert Reich, Richard Holbrook, Bob Kerry, Eliot Spitzer, George Mitchell and Robert Rubin in the next Administration.

I believe John Kerry has a healthy regard for the Constitution as a whole and the separation of powers in particular. It seems to me that should go without saying but that hasn’t been the case in this Administration, which has actually shut dissenting Members of Congress out of the White House. It doesn’t take much of a historian to know why we have three branches of government and how their balancing act contributes to the resilience of our political system. For a little head-shaking, track down a copy of Rumsfeld’s Rules, composed by Donald Rumsfeld in 1974 and revised by him in 2001. Had this Administration stuck to Rumsfeld’s Rules as they relate to governance we might not be in this mess.

Speaking of resilience, I believe Mr. Kerry’s principles of governance are resilient enough remain intact in the post 9/11 world. Mr. Bush changed his mind about many things following the attacks on America. Mr. Kerry had a broader, deeper view of things. Without diminishing the horror and evil of those attacks nor the great losses suffered, I don’t believe they changed everything at all. Due respect to Mr. Bush’s performance in the days immediately following 9/11, I think we need domestic and foreign policy that is decisive not impulsive, resolute, not stubborn, focused, not tunnel-visioned. Fixing what’s broken requires statesmanship, wisdom and sound philosophy. I believe Mr. Kerry is better suited to the ongoing task in every way.

Mr. Kerry does not complicate simple things nor oversimplify difficult things. The present administration seems extremely binary—totally on or totally off, with us 100% or dead set against us. The notion of complexity seems to escape them. Or perhaps they believe we’re too dumb to understand complexity. With the end of the debates I think it’s clear that Mr. Kerry is in personal command of the principles and facts underlying his policy positions. His capacity to state matters clearly does not diminish his frequent refusals to make speculative statements and promises about matters over which he has little control. I respect that degree of respect for the electorate. It is, to me, the kind of thing I expect from honest, clear-thinking parents who decline to say foolish things like “I will protect you; nothing bad will happen to you; you’ll always have what you need; I guarantee your safety” when they know full well these things are beyond their capacity to deliver. Far better to say, “I will do my best to make sure you are safe and secure and cared for.”

I believe Mr. Kerry views his life of privilege as a responsibility. Why else go to Viet Nam and extend his commitment to a second tour? Why else become a prosecutor? Why else choose government over business? I think tales of blind ambition fail to account for 20 years of service. The ambitious are seldom patient in my experience.

I believe Mr. Kerry values truth over loyalty. Though I didn’t know his name at the time I was deeply impressed by the work of Viet Nam Veterans Against the War. I thought if anyone had earned the right to criticize the prosecution of that war the VVAW were certainly at the front of the line, at least at the level of operations. It was costly to speak against the war in 1971—I remember it vividly. I believe John Kerry spoke unflinchingly and in good conscience. To those who say he broke the code I ask, Are you saying a priest who knows other priests are abusing children should keep the code? Are you saying a police officer who knows other cops are shaking down business people or killing the homeless should keep the code? Please.

I’ve said too much. It’s settled for me. I have no confidence in the Bush Administration and that alone is enough to move my vote to the other side. But it’s more than a vote of no confidence. I’m convinced my vote for John Kerry is the wisest exercise of my responsibility as a citizen in this election.