When John Kerry reported for podium duty last Thursday night at the Democratic Convention, he faced a deceptively simple rhetorical decision: One America or two? This has been an essential Democratic fault line for more than a century. The populist temptation--to frame a campaign as a contest between the "people" and the "powerful"--has never had much success because it is rooted in resentment, even when it is camouflaged with a smile, as it was by John Edwards last Wednesday night and, less felicitously, by Al Gore in the 2000 campaign. The idea of an expansive, inclusive United States of America--a vision presented elegantly on Tuesday night by Barack Obama, the Kenyan-Kansan Senate hopeful from Illinois--has always been the straightest path to the country's heart, as Bill Clinton proved in 1992. These days, the choice has little to do with policy. Edwards and Obama, Clinton and Gore differ on few issues. But there is no more basic strategic or spiritual decision a politician can make: One America or two? A unifying campaign or a divisive one? Kerry last week artfully and astutely chose one America.
His speech--snoozy on the page, rousing in the hall--didn't offer any grand arguments. But the challenge of the moment was about demeanor, not substance. Kerry had to present himself as a plausible, positive--and not unpleasant--leader. His success was evident in the mostly mingy responses of his opponents. He rushed through the speech, some said. He didn't defend what Republicans describe as his liberal-liberal-liberal record in the Senate, said others. To my tired ears, the speedier tone was a refreshing change from the molasses pomposity of Kerry past. And I doubt that we'll see George W. Bush explain or defend his "Bring 'em on" or "Mission Accomplished" moments when his turn comes on Sept. 2. Those who wanted Kerry to produce an answer for the endless calamity in Iraq should ask themselves, What could he have said? What other politician or academic expert or commentator has produced a plausible solution? For good or ill, the broad outline of Kerry's position on Iraq does not differ from the President's. It does, however, differ in nuance--in its reliance on diplomacy rather than unilateralism and, for future military actions against al-Qaeda, in its reliance on covert intelligence and special operations rather than conventional military assaults. Kerry is not going to bug out of Iraq or abandon the broader war against Islamist radicalism. He even outflanked the President on the right by proposing a larger military. As the campaign progresses, we'll see whether the President outflanks Kerry on the left by bringing some troops home.