John Kerry's No Michael Dukakis. He's Worse.

Roundup: Media's Take

Brendan Miniter, in the WSJ (March 17, 2004):

John Kerry is right about one thing: He's no Michael Dukakis. A look at the record shows that in his bid for the White House in 1988, Massachusetts' then-governor ran to Mr. Kerry's right on national defense. Mr. Kerry has not repudiated his opposition to the weapon systems Mr. Dukakis promised to support.

Everyone remembers the pathetic image of Mr. Dukakis riding around in a tank while wearing a goofy helmet. But few remember why he staged that photo-op in the first place. Mr. Dukakis was fighting to overcome the impression that he had what Henry Kissinger called a "visceral, negative" attitude toward the military--a fatal problem for a Cold War presidential candidate.

Being part of the Democratic Party was a hindrance. Many Democrats spent much of the 1980s fighting for the nuclear-freeze movement. Mr. Kerry joined the movement in 1982, during his successful campaign to become Mr. Dukakis's lieutenant governor, and he used many of its appendage groups in Massachusetts when he sought an open Senate seat in 1984. These were the intellectuals behind the rabble in the streets who protested things like deploying nuclear missiles to Turkey to counter the Soviets SS-23s.

But they did much more than oppose building or deploying nukes. They believed so strongly in "mutually assured destruction"--neither side would start a nuclear war if it was clear neither side could win such a war--that they also opposed just about any weapon system that would give America a tactical advantage over the Soviets. That's why President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (which opponents derided as "star wars") was so vehemently opposed. And it's why Mr. Kerry and others voted against funding Trident II submarine launchers, stealth bombers and even the M1 Abrams Tank.

Mr. Dukakis understood the political reality that he had to close his party's credibility gap on defense without alienating politicians like Mr. Kerry. So he tried to have his cake and eat it too. Mr. Dukakis promised to cut funding for SDI but not to kill the program altogether. He also offered qualified support to the Trident II and stealth bomber projects as well as to consider ways to get around his budget concerns regarding Midgetman missile launchers. But the bulk of his military program called for spending more money on "traditional" military hardware. He wanted more tanks, not more nukes.
To pull off this feat, Mr. Dukakis drew close to "Defense Democrats" like Rep. Les Aspin and Sen. Sam Nunn, then chairmen of the Armed Services Committees in their respective chambers. He wanted to show that he wasn't the equivocating "liberal," Vice President George Bush said he was, but in fact had the support of hawks within his party.

On Sept. 11, 1988, a group of Defense Democrats made a public show of meeting Mr. Dukakis to press him on, among other things, dropping the "ifs" and "buts" when voicing support for stealth bombers and Trident II missiles. After the meeting they publicly proclaimed him to be sound on defense. The next day Mr. Dukakis went into the tank for the famous photo.

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