Friday, August 27, 2004

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There's something wrong with this argument

Via Glenn Reynolds, I see that James Lileks has a Jewish World Reviiew essay on John Kerry's ambition. Here's the key part of Lileks' thesis:

So why does Kerry want to be president?

The reason is almost tautological: John Kerry wants to be president because he is John Kerry, and John Kerry is supposed to be president. Hence his campaign's flummoxed and tone-deaf response to the swift boat vets. Ban the books, sue the stations, retreat, attack. Underneath it all you can sense the confusion. How dare they attack Kerry? He's supposed to be president. It's almost treason in advance.

There's something bothering me about this line of argument -- namely, that it applies with equal force to George H.W. Bush. Before he got elected in 1988, Bush Sr. was widely viewed as a resume looking for a position to fill. And he was a mighty fine president in my book.

I'm not saying that John Kerry is George H.W. Bush. I'm just saying that Lileks ain't persuading me.

UPDATE: Before adding a comment to this post, re-read it very carefully -- yes, that's right, I'm comparing Kerry to Bush 41, not to Bush 43.

posted by Dan on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM


I would agree that Bush's pre-presidential resume, and more importantly, his pre-9-11 resume was very similar to Kerry's. What has become apparent is that post 9-11 Bush has both a viceral and cerebral reason for wanting to serve another term - the war on terrorism. Even those who disagree with everythig about him will grant you that he is focused on the war (and sometimes tell you that is precisely the reason they dislike him). I have yet to sense in Kerry a focus on anything except not being George Bush. And post 9-11 I am not sure that a "resume looking for a position to fill" is enough.

posted by: Greg Ferguson on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

George H. W. Bush (Bush the elder) or George W. Bush (Bush the younger)?

My sense in 2000 was that George W. Bush wanted to be President in part because he had a policy agenda he wanted to pursue -- tax cuts, missile defense, social security reform, education reform, the faith-based charity initiative, etc. I don't really get that sense from Kerry; as far as I can tell he wants to be President because he doesn't want George W. Bush to be President. His policy initiatives seem largely (though not entirely) driven by knee-jerk opposition to whatever Bush has done or wants to do.

posted by: Kyle Haight on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Focus plus criminal incompetence aren't a particularly inspiring thing. Honestly, I'll give you that the guy is really really focused on something. I'm not sure what. I'm not sure what Iraq has to do with the War on Terror but even giving you that, focus + incompetence, total lack of follow-through, and criminally negligent planning isn't good enough.

The fact that Kerry isn't Bush and can't possibly me more incompetent is enough for me.

(I voted for W in 2000 . . . ouch. So there's a bit of buyer's remorse at work. Wanted to vote for McCain anyway).

posted by: Brian on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Oh yeah, and why did I vote for Bush in 2000 even though I wasn't too enthusiastic?

He wasn't Gore.

Really, did we know anything about the guy? He was gov of Texas for a while. Uh, and had the same last name as another president.

posted by: Brian on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Yeah, but from what I'm reading there are plenty of other reasons to favor Bush over Kerry. Kerry comes from a very wealthy family that's out of touch with normal American concerns; Kerry graduated from two elite northeastern Universities with aparently no real academic accomplishments; Kerry never held a regular job for long; Kerry never ran a successful business; Kerry served for a shorter period in Vietnam than others of his generation; Kerry's accomplishments in politics before he ran for President aren't all that impressive.

Uh, wait a second . . .

posted by: arthur on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I have to say that just about anyone who runs for president has to really want the damn thing and believe he should have it. Why the hell else would he do it? I find this description devoid of any substance other than that most obvious point. This essay tells you nothing about Kerry, and everything about Lileks.

posted by: Buck on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Although George H.W. Bush was certainly ambitious, he came across more as a man who felt an obligation to be president, for the good of the country. He did not, however, confuse the good of the country was necessarily George H.W. Bush, and so he had, like everything else in life, an obligation to earn the post. Kerry comes across more as a man who feels entitled to be president, and therefore cannot at heart comprehend criticism. Perhaps that is why Kerry reminds me so much of a college professor.

posted by: William Sjostrom on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I think Lileks is more useful on toddler raising issues than Kerry psychology. It's the advantage of direct experience...

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Come on, Dan. Kerry's entire life has been building up to this Presidential run -- that's why the guy was re-enacting his battles in Vietnam for videotape. He's always wanted to be President, and his many flip-flops show that desire to be stronger than any convictions he may have.

George W. Bush, on the other hand, seems to have come around to serving in public office much more reluctantly. He spent much of his youth getting drunk and cutting up, which makes him seem much more like an average American and endears him to people who aren't attracted to those who make ambition the primary value of their lives.

Unbridled ambition is not endearing -- there's a reason that Harry Potter isn't in Slytherin House.

posted by: Ryan Booth on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Yeah, Dan, good one, that is *so* such a good point. Other than him being the vice-Friggin-President for 8 years, it's almost like totally the same thing as Kerry, dude...

You should like see if FA will let you like, you lmow, flesh-out the theory, dude. They could so totally like put you on the cover again, dude.

posted by: Kerry Fan on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I like Lileks, but that is one dumb paragraph.

If you are going to run for President, you better believe you would be a great president. You better believe that your judgement is exceptional. You better believe that you have the courage to face up to the challenges. You better believe that no one else could do the job better.

As far as how to respond to the Swift Vets attacks... Well, the response is still ongoing. It's a fluid situation. We won't know how Kerry did until the last scene is played. It could prove to be a disaster for Kerry or it serve as the platform to show the country just exactly how George Bush runs for office, by hiding behind the skirts of surrogates while they use lies to smear his opponent.

posted by: timshel on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Hence his campaign's flummoxed and tone-deaf response to the swift boat vets. Ban the books, sue the stations, retreat, attack.

This is quite an interesting comment from Lileks. Kerry's response was to "ban the books, sue the stations"? I just searched for some background information. I found a bunch of allegations by a variety of right-wing commentators ranging from pressure on bookstores to put the book on low-traffic shelves (!) to Goebbels book burning comparisons.

But the only concrete piece of evidence for any of this was this:

i.e. a letter by Kerry's lawyers telling TV station managers that the swift vets' ads contain a bunch of factual lies and urging them not to air them. There is a hint at that the stations might be held liable, if they go ahead and air them anyway, but no outright threat to sue them.

So on the one hand the response was "flummoxed and tone-deaf", but on the other hand the actual response is taken out of context and exaggerated in absurd ways. The right-wing commentators are trying hard to turn this into a lose-lose proposition for Kerry.

At the same time, the guy who long ago sued because he felt unfairly treated in ads looks on, waffles about whether the swift vet ad should be condemned and yet manages to portray his opponent as a waffler and someone resorting to lawsuits. (Oh, in case you didn't know because it received so comparatively little coverage, the Bush campaign filed a similar lawsuit already on March 31st - see¬Found=true)

We also keep hearing that Kerry "ONLY spent less than four months in Vietnam" when it was actually more like six months. (For some reason we don't keep hearing that Bush "ONLY got arrested for drunk driving twice".)

One can see interesting parallels to the 2000 campaign. The "Al Gore invented the Internet" bullshit, the "Al Gore lied about Love Story and Love Canal" nonsense - all easily refuted and yet endlessly repeated even throughout the mainstream media until at least some of it stuck with almost every single voter.

The smear campaign is in full attack mode. And no, it's not the same on both sides. Bush is being attacked, yes, but he isn't being smeared. He keeps talking about those mean ads against him, but he has never pinpointed any particular allegation that was factually wrong. (Isn't that interesting? And also that nobody in the media seems to notice this and point it out?)

posted by: gw on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I think you're right on the mark on Bush 41. It was a resume item, something to do now... and it's why I think his run for re-election was so decidedly lackluster. Bush 41 lost the election, Clinton didn't win it. Bush kept doing things that cost him votes, over, and over, and over.

I said at the time that I thought he was just too tired to be President anymore, he just didn't know how to bow out gracefully.

posted by: Addison on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I consider Lileks grating and obscenely overrated, so it's predictable that I wouldn't like that dumb paragraph. In point of fact, kicking it around as a Senator from a Northeastern for about 20 years is not normally the direct route to the Presidency.

If Edwards had been handed the nomination, I'd be wondering what a pretty inexperience 50 year old guy is doing coming out of nowhere, just because he's from the South, can been seen as moderatish, and has a nice smile.

Kind of like I was wondering, as a Texan, what in the hell GW was doing running for Governor in 1994.

posted by: norbizness on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]


While certainly partisan, Lileks' charactarization of the Kerry approach on the swifties book seems well within the realm of acceptable polemic. See:

I think the threatened lawsuits were an tactic to keep these charges from circulating widely. As the tactic hasn't worked, there's no reason the Kerry camp would waste their limited resources persuing the issue. The FEC complaint better accomplishes this kind of objective.

My own thought on this issue is a belief none of this is terribly relevant, but Kerry brought it on himself by making such a big deal of his Vietnam service.

posted by: Appalled Moderate on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Are we appalled because Kerry has wanted to be president since infancy? No. We're appalled because he appears to have staged scenes and rearranged people as so many props throughout his life to get there. Bill Clinton wanted to be president all his life too, but the monumental effort it took for him to get there from a shack in Hope, Arkansas is undeniably awesome. Kerry, by comparison, is a Zelig figure who kept "accidentally" getting into must-see photos of the 20th century. All the slick, none of the sex appeal of Clinton. Blech.

There's something supremely creepy about PoMo politicians like Kerry who seem capable of a bizarre degree of dispassionate detachment about their whole lives (What will historians make of this decision?). That, I think, is what Lileks' is alluding to (what the hell do I know? I don't worship at that shrine either). Ambition is good; life as one big photo op, shameful.

posted by: Kelli on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Lileks' charactarization of the Kerry approach on the swifties book seems well within the realm of acceptable polemic. See:

Hm, did we read the same Salon article? Where in that article is any lawsuit mentioned? The publisher has been told by the Kerry campaign that the book is "a hoax and should consider withdrawing it from bookstores" (according to Salon). I'm sorry, but that's quite a way from "banning books".

In fact, some of the conservative commentators I stumbled upon trying to find evidence of Kerry's lawsuits against stations and bookstores or book publishers actually made the argument that the fact that Kerry has NOT sued the swift vets proves that the allegations must be true!

So sue them and you are trying to repress free speech; don't sue them and they must be right! A lose-lose proposition, as I was saying.

(In the meantime Bush incoherently suggested soemthing that could be interpreted to practically ban all non-official free speech during campaigns, and yet nobody cares about that! I find that truly amazing.)

Kerry brought it on himself by making such a big deal of his Vietnam service.

I disagree with that assessment. It would have come up anyway. See the McCain/Bush primaries in 2000. In fact, if Kerry had not proactively brought up his Vietnam experience as an asset, we would now certainly have people tell us that he didn't bring it up because he was embarrassed about it. We would have people say "Look, if these allegations against Kerry weren't true, then why wouldn't Kerry have made a big deal of his Vietnam record?"

Again, a lose-lose proposition for Kerry, and a win-win proposition for the smear machinery.

posted by: gw on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I agree. We need more presidential candiates who are entitled and messianic, rather than ambitious or meritocratic.

Thanks for clearing all that up for us, Jimbo.

posted by: SamAm on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Your book is a little different than mine, Dan. The elder Bush ran a campaign that was content-free except to the extent that it involved making irresponsible promises on taxes Bush had no chance of making good. The voters' verdict on the Presidency that followed seemed predictable to me, and though I had little use for either Clinton or Perot seemed also just what Bush deserved.

But while we're on the subject, why doesn't Lilek's critique of Kerry's ambition apply with equal force to the younger Bush? George W. Bush easily matches Kerry's formidable sense of personal entitlement; the "ideas" he ran on in 2000 were designed specifically to be campaign props; and much of the Republican establishment (including, of course, Bush's own retainers) viewed McCain's primary challenge to him as treason and attacked McCain accordingly.

Both Bush's and Kerry are products of our deeply corrupted political culture. That doesn't make their cases identical, but does suggest the likelihood that a Kerry administration would not be as different from the Bush administration as many Kerry supporters would like to believe.

posted by: Zathras on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Bush is still a spoiled brat.

posted by: whatever on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Lileks has Kerry nailed. Kerry has no particular purpose or reason to run for the job, other than the fulfillment of a nearly life-long ambition. A better analogy for Kerry would be be to Bill Clinton, rather than Bush 41-they're posturing and preening men, self-seeking, not motivated to serve but to be served.

posted by: John Salmon on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

OK, so Kerry volunteered to fight in an unpopular war to score brownie points for a future Presidential run? Explain how that one works. Maybe you weren't around during the time, and don't have direct and personal knowledge of just how bitterly the country was divided. Fighting in Vietnam was no guarantee of popularity. Yet Kerry knew that someday serving in Vietnam would be an asset. The man's more prescient than Nostradamus!

And, since Kerry apparently didn't earn a single medal and didn't really save anyone's life and wasn't any of the places he said he was...yet managed to get the medals and the commendations and the gratitude of the person who is under the impression that Kerry saved his life...Kerry was able to work the entire military establishment and hypnotize total strangers into thinking he was there. Wow! Add omnipotence to prescience!

And Kerry helped take down BCCI because he just knew it would be useful someday when he ran for President? It had nothing whatsoever to do with BCCI's corruption?

Ditto Kerry's work on Iran-Contra: again, it had nothing to do with uncovering illegal arms deals with an avowed enemy of the US, and certainly nothing to do with an illegal war being run from the WH basement. Just gloryhounding. Have I got that right?

And Kerry worked with John McCain to clear up the POW/MIA matter once and for all just to score more brownie points?

Wow. Somehow he knew that, someday, all of this would be his ticket to glory.

Hey, anyone *that* prescient and that omnipotent is definitely someone we want in the White House.

posted by: CaseyL on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

“There's something bothering me about this line of argument -- namely, that it applies with equal force to George H.W. Bush. Before he got elected in 1988, Bush Sr. was widely viewed as a resume looking for a position to fill.”

I agree completely. However, there is a key aspect that Dan Drezner is conveniently overlooking: George W. Bush is nowhere near as sleazy as John Kerry. The latter gentleman will say and do just about anything to become president. Bush senior had his limits. Indeed, why is our host ignoring the proven sliminess of Senator Kerry? Is he trying to pretend that Karl Rove is responsible for Kerry’s lies to the U.S. Congress?

posted by: David Thomson on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

“Both Bush's and Kerry are products of our deeply corrupted political culture. That doesn't make their cases identical, but does suggest the likelihood that a Kerry administration would not be as different from the Bush administration as many Kerry supporters would like to believe.”

Nonsense. George W. Bush embraces some core values and is basically honest. John Kerry is a sleazy human being who puts his wet finger into the wind to see which way its blowing.

“Are we appalled because Kerry has wanted to be president since infancy? No. We're appalled because he appears to have staged scenes and rearranged people as so many props throughout his life to get there.”

Gosh, I think you’re starting to get it. Every politician is ambitious. Any yes, even the most honest will sometime push the envelope. John Kerry, however, takes it to another level. He is truly a slime ball. Why is Dan Drezner and others seemingly oblivious to the Massachusetts senator’s fatal character flaw? Why the indifferent shrug of the shoulder towards Kerry’s despicable lies? What is going on here?

posted by: David Thomson on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Why the indifferent shrug of the shoulder towards Kerry’s despicable lies?

Because it doesn't matter about Kerry at this point.

Bush has been a pathetic failure at everything except getting the media to cover up for him, and he hasn't done adequately at that either. He is so unacceptable that it's time to give somebody else a chance.

I strongly doubt that the republican party will show the character it would take to replace Bush at this point. It would be good if they would. Jack Ryan would make a better president than Bush. McGreevey would be better. Rowland would be better. Probably Quayle would be better. And there are lots of republicans who would be electable. But I doubt it will happen.

So OK, if Kerry is the only alternative, Kerry it will be. If he turns out even half as bad as Bush I hope the Democrats will choose somebody else in 2008 so we can get two better choices.

Seriously, Kerry is likely to win. It's close to a tie and it's been close to a tie for quite awhile. If there was an adequate republican running Kerry wouldn't have a chance. Now is the time to dump Bush. After the convention it will be too late.

posted by: J Thomas on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

David Thompson - For pete's sake, get real. John Kerry has been a US senator for 20 years. And he was Lt Governor prior to the Senate and ran a prosecutor's office prior to that. He may not have the most charismatic personality, or be the most zealous law writer, but if he really possessed the type of flaws you attribute to him, to the over the top degree you insist on, we would have heard about them before.

posted by: sully on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

John Kerry has a sense of entitlement that I think is far beyond what any candidate in recent history has had. Even with the 15% the media thinks it will give him---many people are seeing him in new lights.
He thinks he is perfectly entitled to attack the President's service (Not just by the DNC,his campaign, or or 527's) But it is unfair, mean etc. etc. for anyone to question his service.
Only the SBVT ads are bad the Dem's 527's must be allowed to exist.Financial and legal ties to republicans are illegal, the same type of ties plus trading employeees by the Dems is no problem
He does not need to release his full service record 1966-1978. Teresa does not have to release her tax return.
He does not have to condemn F911, the Hollywood crowd, but Bush must condemn the SBVT ad specifically.
As it goes on and on people note that John Kerry has one standard for himself and a different one for everyone else.

posted by: bethl on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

does anyone READ your comment?
bush 41. bush 41. the H is the giveaway.

can you please explain why you think Bush 41 was a mighty fine president? what accomplishments did he have? what initiative did he take, what vision did he represent, what executive or legislative work of merit was due to him or his support/veto?

he oversaw the US during a period of communist collapse that was due to his predecessor; he didn't intervene enough to keep nukes and other weapons out of the hands of rogue states as the ex USSR collapsed into anarchy/kleptocracies. what did he do of value?

posted by: greifer on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Dan is vague on a crucial point. When he says Bush 41 was "widely viewed", is he endorsing that, or not? I think that picture of Bush is obviously wrong, as anyone can see by looking at Bush's record, before and after he became president. But I am not sure Dan shares that view.

Those who find my opinion puzzling whould begin with a study of Bush's environmental record. (I'll have a long post treating that, and other Green Republican subjects, in about 10 days.)

posted by: Jim Miller on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

I'll believe that President Bush and John Kerry are identically motivated if you can show me one credible instance, with witnesses that Dubya tried to crash a line and said "Do you know who I am?" when people objected.

posted by: Steve Lassey on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Don't worry about confusion -- no one would think George W. Bush was a resume looking for anything.

posted by: Kyle on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

The analogy with GHW Bush is correct, in one sense. Kerry like GHW has a world-view and a sense of the policy process that have been shaped entirely by the issues and challenges of the Cold War era. Kerry still believes that France is an ally and that the world turns on the European axis.

posted by: lex on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

Also like GHW Bush, Kerry the diplomat's son seems to have imbibed the institutional views and preferences of old State Department hands. In contrast, George W made a very decisive break with his father, both as family cutup/clown/drunk during his youth and then as a born-again neocon during the 1990s.

There's an interesting Freudian analysis in there, somewhere. Or maybe a Shakespearian one. If the latter, then I picture Kerry as Hamlet and W as Prince Hal, which in wartime makes the choice a lot clearer.

posted by: lex on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

"Also like GHW Bush, Kerry the diplomat's son seems to have imbibed the institutional views and preferences of old State Department hands."

To me, this is a big plus for Kerry. In foreign policy, what you do is often less important than how you do it. Valuing ideology over professionalism, as the Bush administration has done, is disastrous.

Peter Galbraith gives an example in the latest NYRB: the quasi-constitutional Transitional Administrative Law, which the Bush administration had invested so much effort into, expired on June 28, when the occupation ended. The Bush administration doesn't appear to have realized this when it was crafting the TAL.

The administration had put itself in an impossible position with respect to its own creation. In 2003, at the request of the United States and Great Britain, the United Nations Security Council acknowledged that the US-led coalition was the occupying power in Iraq. As a general principle of international law, occupying powers are not allowed to make permanent, or irreversible, changes in an occupied country. Occupying powers cannot cede territory, sell assets, or make permanent law. Thus all law made by the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) expired when the occupation ended on June 28. ...

How did the Bush administration invest so much in the TAL and then find itself forced to abandon it? It appears that Bremer never realized that his decrees would not legally outlast the occupation. It was a rookie's mistake caused, as with so many other CPA failures, by the lack of expertise on the part of his staff. The TAL was largely the responsibility of two of Bremer's assistants (dubbed "the west wingers"), one an extremely capable but relatively junior Foreign Service officer and the other a young political appointee from the Pentagon's stable of neoconservative nation-builders. Imbued with grand ideas such as remaking the Iraqi judiciary with a US-style Supreme Court, they apparently neglected to consult an international lawyer.

If Kerry brings back professionalism in foreign policy, that would be a huge step in the right direction.

posted by: Russil Wvong on 08.27.04 at 02:27 PM [permalink]

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