Kerry Faces Vexing Choice on Iraq Costs

Andrew E. Busch

September 1, 2004

With seven weeks to go until election day, John Kerry remains unsure of how to respond to George W. Bush’s lead. Looking for an issue with which to gain traction, Kerry has begun arguing that the Iraq war has drained national resources away from pressing domestic concerns.

He is tapping into a potential source of real discontent, the concern by many Americans over the deficit and the ever-higher financial cost of the war. However, it is not clear that Kerry’s message will overcome the muddle in his campaign thus far.

Kerry faces two key questions. He must decide whether to continue and sharpen this line of attack or drop it and try something else. If he decides to continue, he must decide whether to emphasize that war money could have been spent on domestic programs or that it ballooned the deficit.

There are risks involved in pursuing this general line of attack. Most fundamentally, Kerry voted for the war, recently reiterated that position, and has never repudiated it. If he is unwilling to repudiate the war, he can hardly object to the fact that money was spent on it. This, of course, is also the reason that his vote against the $87 billion war appropriation makes a hash out of his position on Iraq. He who wills the end wills the means. Emphasizing this issue may do nothing but raise even more questions about what exactly Kerry believes about Iraq, representing just one more zig. Indeed, it cannot help Kerry that he is launching his argument just as Gallup reports that the percentage of Americans thinking Iraq was “worth it” has recently risen above 50 percent for the first time in months. Nor can it help that Kerry is captured on film repeating John F. Kennedy’s mantra that America would “pay any price” and “bear any burden” to assure the survival and success of liberty.

Furthermore, if he does proceed, it is far from clear that the social democratic approach to which he is now leaning will be more successful than the deficit hawk approach. It could fire up his liberal base by giving Democratic voters something to vote for rather than just something (Bush) to vote against. If the election has turned purely into a turnout contest, this approach might bear some fruit. On the other hand, the argument that Iraq has drained money from domestic government is hardly plausible from a policy standpoint, given that Bush has overseen the fastest expansion in discretionary domestic spending since Lyndon Johnson despite the war. From a political standpoint, Kerry can pursue the social democratic line only at the risk of losing the significant group of moderate voters who are troubled by Bush’s fiscal profligacy. He is not going to win the remnants of the Perot vote by promising to transfer money from defense to entitlements. Indeed, he not only will fail to attract such voters, he may well repel them. If he wishes to reach to the middle rather than to solidify his base, he would attack Bush for not conserving the nation’s treasure. He might then at least partially escape, rather than reinforce, his image as just another liberal Democrat from Massachusetts. He would do so, however, at the cost of further boring his base.

Not an easy choice.

Andrew E. Busch is a Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.