Flipper for President

Why Kerry's indecision trumps Bush's bullheadedness

| May 2004

Think calling Bush an ape is a cheap shot? Consider the 'Hipublicans' -- hip, young Republicans -- latest wisecrack. Criticizing presumed Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry's reputation for shifting his position in response to public opinion, they've nicknamed him, 'Flipper.' A small group of the young Republican protestors taunted attendees to Kerry's recent speaking engagement at the Minneapolis Convention Center by wagging giant inflatable porpoises and thong sandals, along with signs like my personal favorite: 'No Position Left Behind.' The demonstration likely made many Kerry fans' blood boil, and who could blame them? -- mudslinging is never pretty. But fairness aside, do Kerry's opponents have a point?

Critics often point to Kerry's views on the Vietnam War as the definitive example of his waffling ways. Undoubtedly, Kerry's transformation from soldier to activist seems a drastic one. He enlisted in Officer's Candidate School when it was still considered noble to do so, and after four months of service, at a time when the war had become the object of mass disapproval, threw his weight behind Vietnam Veterans Against the War. But Kerry's doubts about the war hardly came out of the blue. In fact, even his graduation speech foreshadowed his later activism, 'We have not really lost the desire to serve,' he said of himself and his classmates, 'We question the very roots of what we are serving.' According to Michael Kranish, Brian C. Mooney, and Nina J. Easton in their new book, John F. Kerry: The Complete Biography by the Boston Globe Reporters Who Know Him Best, 'Kerry's critique of American policy stood out at a time when there were few protests, and most of the public assumed Vietnam would be a winnable war, producing a fresh crop of military heroes.'

That's not to say that Kerry's politics are free from inconsistencies. Criticism of Kerry's tap-dancing is based on his record of 'bold proclamations -- such as his 1992 condemnation of affirmative action and the welfare system -- that were dropped when they didn't yield political firepower.' And who could forget his infamous 2002 vote for the resolution that made possible the internationally unsanctioned invasion of Iraq; a decision that seems to fly in the face of his harsh criticism of Bush's foreign policy.

While Kerry's new nickname rightfully takes issue with his tendency to send mixed messages, it also points out a distinction between his style of leadership and that of President Bush. Loyal supporters of the incumbent, and even some swing voters, applaud Bush's ability to choose one clear message and stick with it. Citing his response to 9/11, they claim that the rigidity of his rhetoric communicates strength to potential terrorists. Add to that the 'Don't Mess With Texas' resolve behind his decision-making, like his insistence upon preemptive war in Iraq, despite overwhelming international protest. And his lack of explanation in the April 13 press conference when asked in a number of ways if he made any errors in judgment in the events leading up to the 9/11 attacks. According to President Bush's definition of leadership, such admissions would convey weakness. But while Bush's supporters may consider his stubbornness vital to the War on Terror and America's status as a force to be reckoned with, it remains antithetical to the very essence of what he serves: a democracy.

In an April press conference, Bush boasted, 'As to whether or not I make decisions based upon polls, I don't.' Meanwhile, John Kerry continues to field criticism for his tendency to submit to popular opinion. Unfortunately, Kerry's reputation makes for great Republican protest slogans, but it could also mean good news: that as the next leader of our democracy, he would be open to suggestions.

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