Kerry may be making classic Gore mistake

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 27, 2004

Al Gore let Ralph Nader sabotage his presidential chances in 2000 by vacating the environmentalist niche that had sustained him for his entire political career. By sublimating his greenish agenda to more “mainstream” issues like Social Security, Medicare and prescription drugs, Gore invited Nader, the Green Party nominee, to occupy the ground he had vacated.

Is John Kerry making the same mistake?

As outrage grows over the war in Iraq, catalyzed by the shameful and shocking mishandling of Iraqi prisoners of war, the left expects Kerry to step up to the challenge and run against what it perceives to be a latter-day Vietnam. But Kerry, anxious to preserve his centrist credentials and to assure Americans of his toughness in the War on Terror, seems intent on talking about everything but Iraq.

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Social Security, health-care costs and education reform dominate his speeches as he seeks to move the agenda back to the domestic-policy issues on which he has a growing lead. That’s good campaign strategy, but it opens up a gaping hole on his left flank.

Liberals will want Kerry to take a firm stand against the war in Iraq and back withdrawal of U.S. troops. Howard Dean Democrats won’t sit patiently by while Kerry explores the niceties of lowering the costs of prescription drugs. They want their candidate to be their tiger in opposing what they see as imperialism in Iraq.

Ralph Nader, though struggling to make the ballot in all 50 states, will stride into the breech and speak unapologetically of his opposition to the war in Iraq. Unencumbered either by a need to appeal to the center or a vote in favor of the war, the leftist gadfly will increase his appeal to the left of the Democratic Party, presaging a possible repeat of his 2000 role.

How easy it is to imagine left-wing voters saying the two mainstream candidates offer only a “Tweedledum and Tweedledee” choice of pro-war alternatives.

This could help President Bush prevail. Most surveys suggest that Nader would at least win the same 3 percent of the vote he drew in 2000; some put his potential much higher.

Meanwhile, Bush continues to sink deeper. More depressing than his diminished fortunes is the difficulty in seeing how he can emerge. There is no issue on which a majority of voters rate him positively. Bush could once depend on terrorism and Iraq to provide the potential for gains. But in latest Gallup Poll, he gets a 47 percent vote share, but only a 41 percent positive rating on handling the war in Iraq. And only 44 percent report feeling the invasion was worth it. So the bars Bush could once have grasped to pull himself up and raise his vote share above 50 percent are no longer there.

Bush must choose between insisting on democracy in Iraq and continuing to provide America the leadership it needs in fighting the War on Terror in other places. His commitment to principle and stubbornness may lead him to pursue the democratization of that savage land, but unless he gets a dose of reality soon, it will cost him re-election.

Personally, I care a lot more that America has good leadership over the next four years than I do that Iraq is a democracy. Kerry would bring with him the old, Clintonian view that terrorism is a crime, necessitating massive police action, rather than a threat requiring action against nations that sponsor or harbor terrorists.

Many voters tend to pay little attention to every twist and turn in the political labyrinth. They focus only on the major events and ignore the developments in between. Since 9/11, no event has rivaled that excruciating day in impact and lasting effect. But the Abu Ghraib scandal comes close. Its effect on this election and on our self-image is likely to be considerable unless and until Bush rescues us from his miscalculations and errors.

I hope he’ll do so in time to give us four more years of his otherwise correct and visionary leadership.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Rewriting History.

Copyright 2004 Dick Morris, All Rights Reserved. Distributed by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. Call Cari Dawson Bartley at (800) 696 7561 or e-mail: email for Dick Morris is

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