- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2007

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The Democrats are on track to retake the White House in 2008 and there is just one thing that can derail them: The Democrats.

The Democrats have the unique capability of becoming their own negative campaigning enemy. Doing to themselves what the Republicans can never do to them — convincing voters that Democrats don’t get it about defeating the terrorists. That Democrats won’t fight to prevent al Qaeda from making Iraq a safe haven for plotting attacks on our homeland and the world.

But last week we discovered that the Democratic presidential hopefuls now have a messenger who can save them from themselves. Do not nod off, or throw or shred your newspaper when I tell you the name of the Democrats’ new message model: It’s John Kerry.

Really. On NBC News’ “Meet the Press” Sunday, Sept. 16, the Massachusetts senator, who was the 2004 poster politician for indecisiveness, showed that he finally gets it, now that he’s not running for president.

Mr. Kerry was rather sharp and certainly clear in stating the Democrats’ position on the Iraq war. He did everything but call it what it really is — a two-pronged military strategy: (1) Gradually redeploy most combat troops in Iraq as Iraq’s civil war cannot be won militarily; (2) Keep enough U.S. combat troops there to defeat al Qaeda in Iraq.

In a sedate sit-down debate with his sometime-friend and most-times adversary, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Mr. Kerry actually disarmed his combative stay-the-course counterpart by making the key point Mr. McCain was making — that U.S. troops must deny al Qaeda in Iraq a safe haven.

“The U.S. strategy in Iraq should be to defeat al Qaeda,” Mr. McCain began. His theme was that America cannot abandon Iraq to al Qaeda terrorists.

Which was also Mr. Kerry’s point: “We’re not talking about abandoning Iraq. We’re talking about… adjusting the mission so that the bulkier combat troops are withdrawn, ultimately within a year. But that you are continuing to provide the basic backstop support necessary to finish the training (of Iraqi troops)… and you are continuing to chase al Qaeda.”

Mr. McCain seemed not to notice that they were in violent agreement on that. “Al Qaeda is in Iraq,” Mr. McCain countered. “If we don’t continue to beat them back, [al Qaeda] will be a major influence.”

Mr. Kerry: “You’re debating with yourself … because we’ve said we’re going to continue to fight al Qaeda.”

It went on like that, like a soundtrack that kept looping until it began to sound, well, loopy. But the take-away point for all Democrats should be clear. A withdrawal of most combat troops must be twinned with keeping enough troops to fight al Qaeda in Iraq.

Consider Barack Obama. The senator from Illinois opposed the Iraq invasion from the get-go — arguing in 2002 for staying the course in Afghanistan by crushing the enemy that attacked us on September 11: al Qaeda. But in detailing his plan for pulling out of Iraq’s civil war, he devoted only a few lines to al Qaeda in Iraq — burying them 1,530-some words deep into his speech: “My plan would maintain sufficient forces in the region to target al Qaeda within Iraq.”

He never explained what that meant, but added obliquely: “Ending the war will help isolate al Qaeda and give Iraqis the incentive and opportunity to take them out.”

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton has also fuzzed the question of al Qaeda in Iraq. The New York senator got around to it, sort of, near the end of a nine-page speech in Des Moines in July: “So as we redeploy our troops from Iraq, I will not let down my guard against terrorism. … I will order specialized units to engage in narrow and targeted operations against al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations in the region.”

Whatever that means. The Republican nightmare of 2008 is that Democrats will wake up and wise up to the fact that Americans don’t want a president who will allow al Qaeda to have a sanctuary anywhere — especially not in Iraq. (Tangential Wake-Up Call: Neither Mrs. Clinton nor Mr. Obama was gutsy enough to flatly condemn a craven newspaper ad in which the liberal group MoveOn.org played a name game to suggest that Army Gen. David Petraeus, an intellect and patriot, would “betray us.”)

That’s why we have come to this strange truth: The Democrats’ smooth-talking presidential front-runners can learn something about decisiveness and articulateness from, yes, John Kerry — now freed from the shackles of knowing his political fate depends on words that pop out of his mouth.

Which is another way of saying: The only way to know what presidential candidates really think is to ask them when they aren’t running for president.

Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.

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