Jewish World Review April 29, 2004 / 8 Iyar, 5764

E. Thomas McClanahan

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Clinton and Kerry: A Comparison | (KRT) Today's assignment: Bill Clinton and John Kerry, compare and contrast.

As a practitioner of the political art, Clinton was virtually without peer. He would say whatever he thought might please a given audience, even if the day before he had said something utterly contradictory.

Clinton was as slippery as they come, yet many voters didn't seem to mind. Enough of them believed, or perhaps simply wanted to believe, that he meant well. To some, his very slipperiness was perversely reassuring. The economist Arthur Laffer was once quoted as saying something along the lines of, "Don't worry! He's thoroughly unscrupulous!" And of course Clinton faced an incumbent president, the first George Bush, who seemed out of touch to many voters.

But that year, 1992, was a different time. The Cold War was over and in the absence of any immediate foreign threat, national security played a minimal role in the campaign.

Today, the political environment is utterly transformed and an interesting question is whether Clinton would enjoy the same success. I don't think so, and the reason why sheds light on why Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee, is having trouble gaining traction against the current President Bush, despite the increasing turmoil in Iraq.

Kerry is exhibiting some decidedly Clintonian traits but this time it's not going down well, perhaps because Kerry's caginess betrays different tendencies. During the '92 race, Clinton's main fault was overpromising. He was the cornucopia candidate. He promised everything to everybody.

But the incidents that highlight Kerry's dodginess have been less about what he plans to do for the country than about his desperate attempts to cover his political posterior. Kerry has been caught in some laughably awkward situations, as when he told an audience that he "actually voted for" the $87 billion for Iraq before voting against it.

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His position on the war has evolved, to put it mildly. He voted to authorize the use of force against Saddam Hussein, but later - with the tide among Democrats shifting to an anti-war position - he voted against the money needed to follow through after Saddam's regime was brought down. Rather than stand his ground, Kerry floated along with the tide.

Other Kerry flubs have dealt with less serious matters. But for that reason, Kerry's performance has been more revealing.

Take last week's conference call with reporters, when he was asked whether he owned a gas-guzzling SUV. That's a tricky question, given his past advocacy for tougher fuel-efficiency standards and higher gasoline taxes. With any answer, he runs the risk of offending environmentalists or auto workers or both.

So how did he handle it? Simple: He wimped out. "I don't own an SUV," he said. A reporter then asked about his wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry. Didn't she have a Chevrolet Suburban in the garage of their home in Ketchum, Idaho?

According to The Washington Post account of this exchange, Kerry mulled the query for a moment, then said he drives a Dodge 600 and bought a Chrysler 300m. But the SUV? "The family has it. I don't have it," he said.

That surely brightened the day at Bush campaign headquarters. Another gift from the flip-flopper! On the campaign Web site, a link quickly appeared to a February story in the Detroit News - a Q&A with Kerry that included this exchange:

Q: What kind of vehicles does your family drive?

A: We have some SUVs. We have a Jeep. We have a couple of Chrysler minivans. We have a PT Cruiser up in Boston. I have an old Dodge 600 that I keep in the Senate. ... We also have a Chevy, a big Suburban .

This sort of thing is diverting on the surface, but disquieting when you consider the implications. Voters are entitled to wonder: If Kerry can't give a stand-up answer on a minor matter such as what sort of cars he buys, what sort of commander in chief would he be?

Kerry's mania for hedging was on display again Monday in an interview on ABC. He was asked about claims that he threw away his medals in a 1971 anti-Vietnam War protest. He denied it. He said that's a story spread by the Bush campaign.

But he has said in the past that he tossed away his ribbons, and during the ABC interview, he pointed out that each ribbon or medal stands for the same military decoration.

So what was his point? If you're confused, don't feel lonely. I read a transcript of the broadcast - it sounded fairly testy - and I couldn't figure out exactly what he was trying to accomplish with the quibbling over ribbons versus medals.

Ribbons or medals, he threw away what they represent even though his campaign puts heavy emphasis on his service in Vietnam and what he did to earn those decorations.

For a politician of even mediocre ability, this sort of inconsistency shouldn't be that hard to explain. The protest happened more than 30 years ago, people change, etc., etc.

Instead, Kerry contorts himself in meaningless distinctions and leaves viewers wondering about his capacity for focusing on the big picture. It's often said that this election is George Bush's to lose. But unlike his father, this Bush has been very lucky in the opponent he's drawn.

E. Thomas McClanahan is a member of the Kansas City Star editorial board. Comment by clicking here.


01/08/04: Bush bad, Dean angry, therefore back Dean

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