Judgement Call

Hugh Hewitt | The Weekly Standard | Friday, January 30, 2004

Judgement Call

"A VOTE for the Liberals is a vote for the Boers!"

That's about as tough as a campaign slogan can get. It was the rallying cry of the Lord Salisbury-Joe Chamberlain forces in Great Britain's Khaki election of 1900. The war with the Boers had begun to go well after shocking, initial defeats, and the Tory-Liberal Unionist alliance called for an election and made it a referendum on the conduct of the conflict. In "Dreadnought," Robert Massie provides a sense of the campaign's tenor:

Chamberlain roamed the land, hammering on a single issue: the conduct of the war. His purpose was to convince the electorate that a Liberal victory would mean the defeat of British arms in South Africa. His theme became, "A vote for the Liberals is a vote for the Boers!" This charge was shouted from platforms, proclaimed by billboards and placards. Posters depicted prominent Liberals kneeling in tribute to President Kruger, helping him to haul down the Union Jack, even urging him to shoot British soldiers. One Liberal M.P. attacked in this fashion had lost two sons in the war and was actually visiting their graves in South Africa when the election was held.

The campaign's rhetoric was blunt, and extremely effective. The incumbents were returned to power with a majority of 134 seats, and their government would last another seven years.

The rhetorical harshness of a century ago wouldn't work in the United States of 2004, in part because people have come to confuse a challenge to an opponent's judgement with a challenge to their patriotism. Anti-McCarthyism is deeply ingrained and reasonable people give such appeals a wide berth.

But a singular focus on the war is a lesson from 1900 that the White House has no doubt already absorbed. A vote for the Democrats isn't a vote for the Baathists, but it surely is a vote for the United Nations. A solid majority of Americans aren't going to support a side which believes that legitimacy resides only in recurring consents from the Security Council and recoils from the use of force even when the Security Council is onboard.

John Kerry voted against the Gulf War in 1991. Had Kerry had his way, Saddam would now be a member of the nuclear club, and the WMDs he had in '91 would have doubled and tripled in scope and lethality. Kerry was absolutely, positively, and enormously wrong about the most important vote of his public life. His judgement was flawed then and remains flawed now. A vote for Kerry is a vote for the Security Council, except in 1991 when that Council wanted war.

A vote for Kerry is thus a vote for American paralysis. No one is going to question the patriotism of a highly decorated combat veteran. But his judgement is fair game, and his judgement is deeply flawed. And a very tough campaign should be waged on exactly that issue.

Hugh Hewitt is the host of The Hugh Hewitt Show, a nationally syndicated radio talkshow, and a contributing writer to The Daily Standard. His new book, In, But Not Of, has just been published by Thomas Nelson.

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