John Kerry: From Swiftboating to Swift Confirmation

The Democrat’s successful nomination reflects the death of neoconservatism.

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009
Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

John Kerry’s ascension to the position of secretary of state isn’t just the culmination of one’s man career in public service. The successful nomination to this post of the man who went down to defeat against President George W. Bush in 2004, who many expected could lose his reelection at the time, is a reversal of fortune few could have anticipated eight years ago.

Kerry’s fast confirmation to the position he now holds, with the near universal support of Republicans who have not been in the business of supporting President Barack Obama, is not only a reflection of his own qualifications and expertise. It’s indicative of a sea change in American politics since the 2004 election and an admission from the right that the Kerry worldview was right all along.

Yet the anti-war crowd wasn’t always so ascendant.

In 2003, war with Iraq loomed, based on the premise that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and might give them to terrorists. Action against him was widely supported by the American public which, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, was still in a state of fear and panic and susceptible to scare tactics most would find laughable now.

But it wasn’t a laughing matter. The Bush Administration, facilitated by a Congress and a news media too timid to question the casus belli, toppled the Iraqi government under what we now know were false pretenses. By the beginning of 2004, an election year, the world had realized there were no weapons of mass destruction nor a link between Saddam and Al Qaeda, the group that carried out the September 11 attacks.

The war turned into a mission to spread democracy and American values. This after the fact framing put Democrats into a bind. Of course, they supported freedom’s march. But many questioned if, in spreading freedom, it was worth it to kill thousands, spend trillions and blow that country to hell. Many thought the Iraq War distracted from the actual war on terror. Many thought it made the United States less safe at home and that a coalition presence in Iraq made the “homeland” a target.

Senator Kerry had voted for the Iraq War but soon came to regret it and ended up campaigning against it for all the reasons described above.

Sadly, such nuance was impossible to express in a campaign dominated by black and white thinking. In opposing the neoconservatives on these counts, Kerry was framed as having a naive “pre-9/11 mindset” or even providing rhetorical aid to the terrorists. (Remember, you’re with us or against us!) In advocating a platform to wind down the wars, Kerry went down to defeat and so did Democrats across the country.

Then came the Iraqi civil war. Amid the collapse of order in 2006, Democrats won back control of the House of Representatives and Senate. The sea change was happening but it wouldn’t be complete until Barack Obama was elected president of the United States and the issue was essentially put to rest. The war was going to end.

It’s no longer just a matter of one side having the upper hand on Iraq. Those who support the Iraq War generally stay silent and agree that it was time to leave.

It’s this tacit agreement that has seen Kerry’s image rehabilitated and his swearing in as secretary, all while 2004 has been unceremoniously cast out from American politics. The party that George W. Bush once led doesn’t just treat him as a pariah; they act as though he never existed. When Republicans do acknowledge that there was a president between Bill Clinton and Obama, it’s generally with embarrassment or regret that Bush let the neoconservatives run the show.

That may be the biggest part of all this: the waning influence of neoconservative thought on Republican politics.

The muddled foreign policy platform of the Mitt Romney campaign shows that traditional conservatives feel comfortable enough speaking their minds without being accused of anti-Americanism. In some cases, those traditional foreign policy conservatives are more opposed to the war(s) than President Obama is. The usual appeals to bumper sticker patriotism don’t work anymore and so the party is finding it needs to change.

Similarly, John Kerry’s 2004 campaign drew its support from disparate groups united only in opposition to Bush’s neoconservatism or perceived warmongering. The lack of a positive message was panned in the aftermath of Kerry’s defeat. Though problematic then, in hindsight simple opposition to neoconservatism was still a better platform. If nothing else, this week — Senator John McCain’s questioning of Chuck Hagel, President Obama’s candidate for secretary of defense, aside — symbolizes the Republican Party’s rejection of that school of thought that won George W. Bush reelection.