Jewish World Review Nov. 22, 2002 / 17 Kislev, 5763

Jeff Jacoby

Jeff Jacoby
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Consumer Reports

The slippery senator | Al Gore took another step to the left last week, telling an audience in New York that he now favors a national single-payer health insurance system. He offered no details, but a spokesman says a speech on the subject is in the works.

A Canada-style single-payer scheme would mean a major decline in US health care -- just ask a Canadian who has had to wait weeks for the results of an AIDS test, or months for cancer radiation therapy, or more than a year for a hip replacement -- and I doubt that Americans are any keener on the idea now than they were when Hillary Clinton was peddling it eight years ago. A single-payer plan was on the ballot in Oregon this month; voters crushed it in a landslide. The fact that Gore thinks it would be a good idea is one more reason to steer clear of Gore in '04.

But give the former vice president credit for taking a concrete stand -- for openly embracing a policy that he knows many voters reject, for not hiding behind a cloud of cliches and being careful to say nothing unpopular. For not being, that is, more like Senator John Kerry.

The current issue of The Boston Phoenix features a 1,300-word essay by Kerry headlined "A clarion call for Democrats." Now, most politicians are given to bloviating from time to time, but this "clarion call" is a masterpiece of meretriciousness -- one gaudy bromide after another, paragraph upon paragraph promising everything while saying virtually nothing.

For example: "We Democrats must have the courage of our convictions. We must be ready to refuse the course of least resistance, to confront the seemingly popular, and to offer a vision that looks beyond the next poll to the next decade and the next generation. Instead of just quoting the words of Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy, we need to match their leadership with our own, with daring and commitment, with new thinking equal to a new and different time." It's all foam, no beer.

Kerry is against making last year's drawn-out income tax cut permanent ("We must say it plainly: Stop the new Bush tax cut for those at the top"). Other than that, you search this manifesto in vain for anything resembling a hard position. "We can build housing and renew community," he declares. "We can have smaller class sizes and after-school safety for children. We can keep our promise to veterans and break the gridlock on our highways. We can clean up our lakes and rivers and escape the stranglehold of foreign oil."

Yes, and we can fly to the moon on gossamer wings, but we'd better not wait for Kerry to tell us how, or what price we'll have to pay to get there, or which Democratic constituency he is prepared to take on to make it happen.

"To do any of these things in the world," Kerry writes, "Democrats must be willing to stand for something." That's just the problem: What does John Kerry stand for?

Well, he stands forthrightly against going to war to liberate Iraq. Or does he? Today he says he will "forcefully and vociferously" oppose any attempt by President Bush to launch such a war absent proof of "an imminent threat." Yet last month he voted for a congressional resolution granting Bush the authority to do just that. His vote, in turn, came after weeks of denouncing not only the administration's Iraq policy ("very amateurish and almost irresponsible"), but the administration's Iraq policymakers ("these guys are fakers"). Where in all this twisting and turning is the real Kerry? Is there a real Kerry?

I think the real Kerry cares considerably more about his own political standing and White House ambitions than he does about Iraq or its dictator. Blasting Bush's foreign policy earns points with liberal Democrats -- the kind who turn out for presidential primaries -- so he blasts away. But voting against the Iraq resolution would have cost points with moderate and conservative Americans -- the majority that decides presidential elections -- so he voted for it.

In 1991, when presidential politics weren't a concern, Kerry cast what he doubtless thought was a safe vote against the Gulf War resolution. "Is the liberation of Kuwait," he demanded, "so imperative that all those risks are worthwhile at this moment?" Back then, at least, he wasn't trying to be all things to all people.

Or maybe he was. When a constituent wrote in support of using force against Iraq, the response from Kerry expressed firm opposition to the war resolution and said that economic sanctions should have been given "more time to work." Nine days later, there came a second letter, this one saying Kerry "strongly and unequivocally supported President [George H. W.] Bush's response." When The Boston Globe published the letters side by side, Kerry blamed the glaring contradiction on a computer glitch, and said the constituent should have received yet a third letter, one opposing the war but supporting the troops.

Funny, no one ever has to ask where Ted Kennedy stands. Why is it always so hard to pin Kerry down? And if he's this slippery and artful even when it comes to issues of war and peace, how can we trust him to play it straight on any other issue?

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Jeff Jacoby is a Boston Globe columnist. Comment by clicking here.

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