John Kerry’s presidential campaign is faltering, and the crux of the problem is the fact that Mr. Kerry’s record as a denizen of the McGovern wing of the Democratic Party may be catching up with him.
Mr. Kerry and Democratic Party officialdom hoped that, by focusing attention on his four-and-a-half months in Vietnam, the candidate would be able to avoid criticism of his many votes to slash funding for U.S. intelligence agencies and weapons systems that proved essential to U.S. successes on the battlefield during the current war on terror. That didn’t happen, due in part to the swift boat advertisements that appear to be dissuading independents from supporting Mr. Kerry.
The swift boat ads — taken together with Mr. Kerry’s vacillation on the current war — are creating serious (and understandable) concerns about Mr. Kerry’s competence to serve as commander in chief. An online survey performed by a firm called HCD Research found that among independents who watched the swift boat ads, the number likely to support Mr. Kerry fell from 42 percent of respondents to 29 percent — a decline of more than one-quarter.
A poll by The Washington Post taken before the start of the Republican National Convention found that, since the end of the Democratic convention in July, there has been an 18-point swing in Mr. Bush’s favor on the question of which candidate is more qualified to serve as commander in chief. Following the Democratic convention, Mr. Kerry held an eight-point lead. On Tuesday, The Post reported that by a 53 percent to 43 percent margin, voters said that Mr. Bush is more qualified than Mr. Kerry to be commander in chief.
To be certain, Mr. Kerry’s credibility problems go well beyond the issues raised in the swift boat ads about his Vietnam service. The candidate’s mishandling of questions on how to deal with Iraq is giving voters further reason to question his competence and judgment. Early last month, for example, Jamie Rubin, a top foreign policy adviser to Mr. Kerry, stated that the Democratic nominee still would have voted in October 2002 to provide Mr. Bush with the authority to invade Iraq — even if it had been clear that coalition forces would not find weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Rubin also stated that “in all probability” Mr. Kerry would have launched a military attack on Iraq if he had been president.
The Kerry-Rubin spin changed dramatically, however, after Mr. Bush pointed out that Mr. Kerry had found a “new nuance” by endorsing the decision to go into Iraq. The hapless Mr. Rubin was sent out to retract his statement and declare that Mr. Kerry didn’t really support the war after all, and that his boss had always opposed giving the president “a blank check” to go to war.
For Mr. Kerry, the humiliation of Jamie Rubin is just one symptom of a much larger problem: Mr. Kerry’s positions seem to change depending on the audience. As we’ve noted before, he has taken contradictory positions on pre-emptive military action and has been both for and against appropriating funds to support the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last month, he was on both sides on the question of withdrawing American troops from Korea. Mr. Kerry’s inability to take a clear position and stick to it is damaging his credibility.