John Kerry's Voters Have Their Heads in the Sixties

Daniel Henninger, in the WSJ (feb. 13, 2004):

The Democrats, from day one of Terry McAuliffe's year-long nomination rondo, wanted a liberal who would be cast in their own likeness. They never wanted a moderate like Joe Lieberman, a Democrat trying to come to grips with the new political century--its security dangers, efficient global markets and a ragged domestic culture. Mr. Lieberman and those who share his views are secondary Democrats. They don't count. The Democrats who pick the winners in their party's primaries also choose its political course. They are the Primary Democrats. To oppose George W. Bush and his politics, the Primary Democrats want a candidate shaped as they were shaped in the late 1960s and the hard political battles they waged in the succeeding 30 years.

The Primary Democrats danced a few rounds with Howard Dean, whose rage-at-the-machine temperament recalled their own best memories way back when. They have since settled on John Kerry, and properly so. John Kerry, in his person and career, exists today as the embodiment of Democratic Party politics from 1968 to this moment. For Primary Democrats, he is their perfect vessel.

These Democrats opposed the Vietnam War, and like Mr. Kerry, that event serves as sextant in their political journey. Primary Democrats regard their active and successful opposition to Vietnam as moral affirmation of their world view, which holds, more as a matter of belief than principle, that any American foreign policy not of their making is too aggressive, morally suspect and wholly wrong.

It doesn't matter that the iconic president bearing Mr. Kerry's initials (as a young man, Mr. Kerry dated Jackie Kennedy's half-sister, Janet Auchincloss) sent the U.S. into Vietnam on a flying carpet of moral certainty. Or that the political commitment to repulse communism in Vietnam, a commitment that troubled Mr. Kerry as he departed in 1968 for heroic service in the war and revulsed him when he left, was set by Lyndon Baines Johnson. Primary Democrats, for reasons that await the tools of psychoanalysis, believe Vietnam was"Nixon's war." After winning Iowa's caucuses, Mr. Kerry volunteered,"I stood up and fought against Richard Nixon's war in Vietnam."

The Republican Nixon's too-ardent anticommunism, they came to believe, was the provenance for Ronald Reagan's wrongful spending on the communist"threat." So it followed that Primary Democrats would then resist Ronald Reagan on Grenada, Nicaragua and installing Pershing missiles in Europe. As senator, Mr. Kerry held hearings into Ollie North and the Iran-Contra connection. In the same Iowa interview just last month, Mr. Kerry described that effort in the words used in the 1980s by all Primary Democrats:"I stood up and fought against Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Central America."

John Kerry was present at the creation of the moral and intellectual voyage of post-1960s Democrats. He helped map its course. He testified in 1971 against the Vietnam War as a young veteran before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He appeared as an antiwar spokesman on"60 Minutes" and"The Dick Cavett Show." John Kerry was a celebrity among Primary Democrats as Bill Clinton never was during this important period. As a Southern governor, Mr. Clinton learned about the inevitable left-right compromises of public policy in ways that rarely tainted the austere ideological experience of Mr. Kerry in the liberal northeast and Washington. (This may well disadvantage Mr. Kerry in the election.)

We have in George Bush a president for whom the formative event of his political life is not Vietnam and the years after but September 11, a catastrophic attack on American soil by an organized global enemy. With his doctrine of pre-emption for threats to U.S. security, his destruction of the Taliban and overthrow of the Hussein regime in Iraq, Mr. Bush has largely broken free of the political period that shaped John Kerry's career. Mr. Bush argues that he is dealing with a world and enemy that has not previously existed. But with Iraq, 30 years of Primary Democratic belief instinctively reappears as resistance, led again by John Kerry. If George Bush's sense of right purpose flows directly from September 11, 2001, so too does many Democrats' from what John Kerry was doing and thinking in 1968 in the Mekong Delta.

Mr. Bush would do well, if he has not already, to revisit the histories of this period. Through the years that John Kerry was personally helping form--and represent--the cognitive gestalt of modern Democratic voters, Mr. Bush was in business. But the Democrats who came to maturity around 1968 spent those years deepening their beliefs and baptizing younger adherents, who filled the streets of San Francisco and elsewhere to oppose"George Bush's illegal war in Iraq."

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