Jewish World Review July 9, 2004 / 20 Tamuz, 5764

Jeff Jacoby

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Edwards's glaring weakness | John Kerry's choice of John Edwards as his running mate was predictable, as was the chorus of acclaim that rose from Democratic throats. But predictable too was the Republican derision of Edwards as inexperienced, weak on defense, and a pet of the contingency-fee bar:

  • "In the Senate four years — that is the full extent of [his] public life. No international experience, no military experience."

  • "The American people want an experienced hand . . . . This is not the time for on-the-job training in the White House on national security issues."

  • "If his intent is to remove special interests from Washington, why has he . . . taken more than $11 million from lawyers and law firms?"

No, wait — those criticisms didn't come from Republicans. They came from John Kerry (or his campaign spokesmen), sometimes repeatedly: The observation that a wartime White House is no place "for on-the-job training" was a particular Kerry favorite. If that was a valid critique of Edwards in the winter and spring, surely it remains a valid critique in the summer and fall.

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Of course, the animadversions ran in both directions. Edwards hit Kerry on trade, on his ties to Washington lobbyists, and on health care, but particularly noteworthy were his pointed disagreements with Kerry on national security issues.

Thus, while both men voted in favor of authorizing the president to invade Iraq, Edwards — unlike Kerry — never tried to wriggle away from his vote by claiming he hadn't really meant to empower Bush to go to war. Nor did he complain that he had been "misled" by the Bush administration.

"The first thing I should say is I take responsibility for my vote — period," Edwards averred during the primary campaign. "And I did what I did based upon a belief that Saddam Hussein's potential for getting nuclear capability was what created the threat. That was always the focus of my concern. . . . So did I get misled? No. I didn't get misled."

Moreover, while the Democratic standard-bearer explicitly disavows the promotion of democracy as a top priority in Iraq and the Muslim world, his running mate embraces it.

In January, Edwards proposed a global strategy to promote democracy by establishing a "Freedom List" of imprisoned dissidents, creating institutions to nurture democracy, and cutting aid to nondemocratic regimes. "America will never defeat violent terror," he said, "so long as hundreds of millions of people in the Muslim world and elsewhere are denied the right to express themselves peacefully, openly, and democratically."

So what exactly does the Democratic ticket stand for on Iraq and the broader war against terrorism? Kerry's realpolitik and Chirac-like insistence on American deference to the UN — or Edwards's Bush-like belief that democratizing the Muslim Middle East is the key to vanquishing terrorism?

Much is being made of Edwards's un-Kerry-like strengths — he is a gifted communicator, he is likable and upbeat, he speaks Southern, he has charisma, he appeals to women. But not even the blindest Democratic partisan is hailing Edwards for his strong national security profile, for the obvious reason that he doesn't have one. His résumé boasts no foreign policy credentials. His much-lauded "Two Americas" stump speech said nothing about the war on terrorism. For that matter, neither did Kerry's speech announcing Edwards as his choice for VP. It contained only a single throwaway reference to "bioterrorism," and didn't so much as mention the words "war" or "iraq."

What Kerry's speech did say was that economic inequality, that tired left-wing cliche, is the fundamental issue in his campaign for the White House. "John talked about the great divide in America . . . between those who are doing very well and those who are struggling to make ends meet," Kerry said. "That concern is at the center of this campaign. It is what it is all about."

Can Kerry really mean that? His presidential campaign is "all about" class warfare? He is going to become president by campaigning on a "Two Americas" theme that Edwards rode to victory in precisely one primary?

Well, in politics anything is possible. But I cannot imagine that the 2004 election will not turn on one issue above all: the war. In Sept. 11 and its aftermath, America faces its most urgent national security challenge in a generation. This is not 1992. "It's the economy, stupid" won't win the election. Even more than 1968 was a referendum on Vietnam, even more than 1952 was a referendum on Korea, 2004 is a referendum on Iraq and the deadly conflict with radical Islam.

As a candidate Edwards has undeniable strengths; in many ways he improves the Democratic ticket. In fact, there is really only one area in which Kerry's new running mate is glaringly weak. It just happens to be the area that matters most.

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

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