According to political analyst Andrew Kohut, the decision of voters to remove a sitting President unfolds in two steps. First, voters have to decide the incumbent has made major mistakes. Then they have to decide the challenger can do better. Judging from recent surveys of sentiment on Iraq, the economy and healthcare, a majority of prospective voters are through step one: they’re ambivalent at best about George W. Bush’s performance in the White House. But only a minority have concluded Senator John Kerry can do a better job. There’s little mystery what the biggest drag is on Kerry’s appeal. It’s the military, stupid.
Thus far, Kerry has done a better job of defining the defense policies he opposes than the ones he supports. He decries unilateralism in waging the war on terrorism. He wants to delay the next round of base closures. He wants to cut spending on missile defense by a third. These aren’t what you’d call daring positions. Even when Kerry says he’s for something, like increasing the size of the Army, the phrase “profiles in courage” doesn’t come to mind. How can voters decide to entrust national security to a challenger if he only takes safe positions?
One way Kerry can close the Democrats’ credibility gap on defense is to identify which weapons systems he supports. He doesn’t need to tie his hands by making premature commitments to controversial programs, but there are plenty of opportunities to differentiate himself from Bush Administration officials without going out on a limb. Here are a few examples.
1. Pentagon policymakers have told the Air Force they want to terminate production of the C-17 transport plane at 180 aircraft, well short of the service’s requirement for 220. C-17 is the best intertheater airlifter ever built, and essential to the Army’s future mobility. But defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s team is repeating the mistake Dick Cheney made a decade ago, trying to end the program before military needs are met. How does Kerry feel?
2. Another system Cheney tried to do in is the Marine Corps’ V-22 Osprey tiltrotor, arguably the most transformational aircraft any service has bought in a generation. Because it combines the speed and range of a fixed-wing plane with the vertical agility of a helicopter, V-22 can revolutionize conventional and counterinsurgency operations. Having overcome earlier problems, Osprey looks ready to enter high-rate production. How does Kerry feel?
3. The Bush Administration is starving the Navy’s Virginia-class attack submarine for funds, even though it is the nation’s last submarine-construction program and was conceived to replace the Seawolf sub that Cheney cancelled when he was defense secretary. Submarines are unique warfighting and intelligence-gathering systems, but if Virginia class goes under, America is out of the submarine-building business. How does Kerry feel?
4. Kerry could also do himself a favor by embracing the Army’s new, highly deployable Stryker armored vehicle. Despite misguided criticism from Newt Gingrich, the vehicle is getting rave reviews in Iraq and looks destined to become a key counterinsurgency tool. But please Mr. Kerry — no photo ops.
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