- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 7, 2004

The 2004 presidential election has spurred at least this one overriding question: Can a liberal Democratic senator with a long record of antidefense votes defeat a wartime incumbent in an age of terrorism?

This campaign, of course, will revolve around other questions Sen. John Kerry’s candidacy poses. Such as, can someone who has been a government insider in Congress for two decades beat a former governor of a large state who first ran as an outsider bent on changing the way Washington works?

Doubtful, as Americans have not looked with much favor on members of Congress who have sought the presidency. The last sitting senator who made it into the Oval Office was John F. Kennedy more than 40 years ago. Six of the last seven presidential elections have been won by former governors.

The economy will be a pivotal factor, too. Mr. Kerry is not just in a race against President Bush — at a deeper-level — he’s in a race against the economic recovery numbers and the calendar. He has been aggressively attacking Mr. Bush for three years of job losses. But his campaign rhetoric will look stale and out of touch if the U.S. economy continues expanding at 4 percent or better and the unemployment rate nosedives.

Legendary financier J.P. Morgan said “anyone who bets against the American economy will lose.” Betting the economy is not going to get stronger this year is a risky wager, and, in my opinion, could only be made by someone who has little faith in the resilience of American free enterprise.

That is what happened in 1984 to Walter Mondale, whose prescription for the economy was, like Mr. Kerry’s, to raise taxes. He kept up a drumbeat of attacks about “Reaganomics” and the 1981-‘82 recession while the economy was roaring back. We know what happened to him.

But I have a feeling the deciding issue in this election will be about who can keep America safe.

Mr. Kerry has made national security a big issue in his campaign offensive, which on the surface looks like a smart move because the country seems divided over the Iraq war or at least the justifications for toppling Saddam Hussein.

But Mr. Kerry faces a number of weaknesses on this issue, not the least of which is his voting record — on issues of when war is necessary, and on the level of spending needed for defense and intelligence to protect the American homeland.

Mr. Kerry has a long voting record, especially throughout the 1990s that led up to the terrorist attacks, of voting to cut defense spending, including weapons systems critical to our victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. His record also includes a lot of votes to cut the U.S. intelligence budget and to further hamstring the CIA’s resources.

The senator complains such attacks are an attempt to impugn his patriotism, when in fact the issue really has to do with his judgment about what kinds of resources are needed to deal with future threats to our national security.

Then there is Mr. Kerry’s record on war and peace. In the first Persian Gulf conflict, Mr. Kerry voted against going to war to drive occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait. He complained then, as he does now, about “the rush to war” and argued we should give economic sanctions against Saddam a chance to work.

In hindsight, we know if Saddam had been allowed to hold on to oil-rich Kuwait, it would have given him the wealth to be an even more dangerous regional threat than he already was.

Then came the flip-flops: In the days that followed his vote against the Persian Gulf war, Mr. Kerry wrote to his constituents that he actually supported driving Saddam’s forces out of Kuwait.

As he prepared to run for president, Mr. Kerry voted for the war resolution giving President Bush the authority to topple Saddam’s terrorist regime, then proceeded to question the wisdom of his vote and what he called Mr. Bush’s “rush to war.”

Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, said Mr. Kerry’s “ambivalence” about the war sent a troubling message of uncertainty, weakness and doubt the American people would reject in November.

It was a new twist in the annals of flip-flops. A Boston Globe pundit said Mr. Kerry was telling the voters that while he voted against the first Iraq war, he actually supported it, and that he voted for the second war when he really opposed it.

Mr. Kerry will have a hard time defending these and other flip-flops on Iraq, and an even harder time explaining how his dovish, antidefense voting record on national security issues makes him the better candidate to defend the country in time of war.

National security may not be at the top of the polling lists right now as the issue has receded somewhat, but if terrorists strike again over the course of this campaign, or are foiled, the issue of who can best protect the country will be the only campaign issue that matters.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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