The crucial issue is not whether John Kerry is "soft" on defense, but whether U.S. national security would be at risk with him in the Oval Office. This is much more than a semantic dispute, and it lies at the heart of the debate about whose world view should prevail.
Kerry wants to link U.S. foreign policy to participation in -- and a willingness to be constrained by -- international organizations, such as the United Nations. He gets it from his father, a State Department diplomat who criticized U.S. Cold War policies as blind to world opinion and unreasonably harsh on the Soviet Union.
President Bush, evidenced by his willingness to buck the United Nations and many allies during his term to pursue U.S. interests, has starkly different priorities. Spotlighting those differences, as do Bush's TV commercials, is not dirty politics. The ads don't question Kerry's patriotism, as he claims, just his judgment.
That is what campaigns in a free country should be about. Kerry's Senate votes and proposals are fair game, as is Bush's record.
Kerry has spent his career criticizing the use of U.S. troops (Vietnam, Iraq 1991 and Iraq 2003) overseas. He pushed CIA and Pentagon budget cuts that even Al Gore opposed. He championed a nuclear freeze in the 1980s in opposition to Ronald Reagan's peace-through-strength stance that Kerry worried would start World War III. Instead, Reagan's approach won the Cold War.
Efforts by Kerry and his minions to distract attention from his record, and label the questions about it as attacks on his patriotism, are horse hockey:
l Kerry's willingness to give U.N. members greater voice in U.S. foreign policy is wrong for America, unless one thinks the views and values in Paris should carry the same weight as those in Peoria.
l Kerry's opposition to forcing Saddam out of Kuwait in 1991 was, in hindsight, especially shortsighted and would have been disastrous.
l His vote against funding the postwar occupation of Iraq was not only wrong but irresponsible, given his vote supporting the war.
Kerry is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, which has led many Democrats to argue (perhaps they are trying to convince themselves) that he can't be 2004's George McGovern or Michael Dukakis. McGovern and Dukakis were the losing Democratic nominees in 1972 and 1988, respectively, because voters didn't trust them to defend the national security.
Democrats hope Kerry's war record will immunize him against criticism, as though a candidate's biography outweighs his plans and proposals. They hope voters will figure it is more important that Kerry served 35 years ago, than whether he's a suitable president for the 21st century.
But then, some still believe Dukakis lost in 1988 because he looked weak riding in a tank, or somehow couldn't come up with a tough defense of his opposition to capital punishment in a TV debate.
Dukakis lost because he was out of sync with middle-class voters, especially on defense matters, and did not fit their definition of a strong leader. He, like Kerry, favored lower defense spending and was less supportive of using military force to protect U.S. interests than was his GOP opponent.
McGovern, who flew bombers in World War II, was, like Kerry, a war hero, yet voters rejected his foreign policy as hopelessly naive. So is Kerry's, and he can't hide his record on national defense behind an honorable discharge and medals.
Jimmy Carter was a military veteran, too, but he was a lousy commander in chief. You might remember the U.S. humiliation in Iran on his watch. Nevertheless, Democrats were gleeful when Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who was a prisoner of war during Vietnam, said he did not believe Kerry was "weak" on defense matters. That's because they are so concerned Kerry not appear as weak as Dukakis, they didn't listen to the entirety of McCain's comments.
"No, I don't believe that he is quote 'weak on defense,"' McCain said. But he also added this: "He is responsible for his voting record, as we all are responsible for our voting record, and he'll have to defend it."
Yet Democrats cry foul about Bush's ads that attack Kerry's record. But those commercials don't call Kerry soft or weak; they say he is "wrong on defense."
So let's dispense with the semantics and stipulate that Kerry is not "weak" on defense. He's just very, very wrong on the national-security issues that matter in a dangerous world.
Peter Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel.