In accepting the Democratic nomination for president John Kerry made an effective case last night for his election in November. He was focused, determined, direct in his criticism of the Bush Administration and forthright in his proposals for strengthening American at home and abroad. Kerry, as always, highlighted his service in Vietnam, standing with his former shipmates and triple amputee Max Cleland. But last night, Vietnam was only the beginning of his public service over a 30 year career that also included criticism of the war he fought. Those experiences were the base on which he presented his vision and hopes for America in 2004 and beyond.
Kerry defended criticism of Bush’s foreign policy as a patriotic duty, rejecting the defeatist label that Republicans use to stifle dissent and questions. He claimed that critical, reasoned dissent is the essence of patriotism, an honorable role that seeks to make America "stronger at home, respected abroad." In doing so, Kerry walks a tightrope. Americans may be uncomfortable with Bush’s actions around the world but we are also wary of criticism that may put our troops or the nation in further jeopardy. Kerry positioned himself as both a soldier who understands war and a commander-in-chief who respects the men and women who fight our wars.
As a combat veteran, Kerry puts himself in a position to be an effective critic of the Bush Administration’s war on terror. And he used his opportunity to challenge Bush’ses effectiveness. Commending Bush for his efforts immediately after 9-11, he lamented how he wished those efforts had continued, implying that the administration had squandered a unique opportunity to protect America through effective international action. He did not offer specific alternatives to Bush’s policies but he did offer the possibility that America can do better.
Kerry also directly rebutted Republican criticisms. He stated clearly that as president, he would decide America’s foreign policies, not waiting for permission from other nations to protect our vital interests. He defended his willingness to examine complex issues that are just "not that simple". And he challenged Bush’s credibility in launching the war in Iraq when he said that he would only go to war when he could look a parent in the eye and tell them that their child’s sacrifice was necessary to protect America.
Compared to his forceful critique on national security, Kerry’s domestic policies were less strong, sounding a bit like a traditional laundry list of Democratic initiatives and programs. He made lots of promises–jobs, education, tax relief, health care and fiscal responsibility–with only a vague description of how he will pay for it all. But he made his promises to a society where fewer and fewer Americans can make ends meet, even working full time. Despite the implicit criticism, Kerry positioned himself as an optimist who believes that "America can do better."
It was a good speech, long but not long winded or mind numbing. Kerry ‘s 45 minutes alone in the national spotlight gave him the opportunity to used the words of Lincoln and Jefferson to rise above partisan rhetoric and to talk of hope and promise. Kerry did not electrify his audience. Applause and cheers were muted throughout his speech. The convention delegates did not come alive until the very end. He delivered a thoughtful speech aimed at the many Americans who do not yet know him or know only the caricature painted by the Republicans. He came across as a candidate who has ideas worthy of consideration.
Kerry’s speech was political. Rightly so. Conventions and campaigns are inherently political actions that seek to define the nation and its policies. Kerry was sincere, thoughtful, patriotic even as he questioned the current administration. Like so many candidates (including George W. Bush) before him, Kerry used his moment in the spotlight to define himself in the best possible terms. The upcoming campaign will test the durability of that definition and Kerry’s ability to sustain the hopes he raised last night.