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This JFK offers a real alternative

By Brendon O'Connor - posted Tuesday, 2 November 2004

John F. Kerry might be more popular in New York, London, Los Angeles and Istanbul, but George W. Bush is more liked by voters in rural Pennsylvania and Ohio and the part of Florida known as the pan-handle. It is this latter grouping that could be crucial in deciding the victor in this year's presidential election.

Kerry is articulate, well travelled, knowledgeable, and more likely to be respected by leaders across the globe. Bush is seen as decisive and resolute by Americans.

Kerry, like his hero and more famous holder of his initials JFK, is a Massachusetts Catholic. Bush is a Connecticut-born former Episcopalian who is now a born-again Texan Methodist.


Kerry was against the 1991 Gulf War. In 2003 he voted to authorise America's war against Iraq believing Saddam was a threat and that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He now calls it the "wrong war", although he is committed to winning it and may well commit more troops to Iraq if elected president. Bush recently said he would do nothing differently in Iraq if he had his time again, despite most credible sources arguing that America botched its post-war planning in Iraq.

In a mockery of the president's feel-good rhetoric on both the war in Iraq and the US economy, the Kerry campaign is handing out rose-tinted glasses. Meanwhile, Bush's people are handing out rubber "Flipper" dolphins mocking Kerry as a political "flip-flopper".

In recent times, Kerry has made a series of impressive speeches on Iraq and the war on terror. He has mastered the details, he is forceful on how America would respond to global terrorism and he is reassuring. However, Bush is still favoured by voters on both Iraq and on the war on terror.

Kerry has a long record of service in the US Congress, being a member of the important Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Bush is the Commander-in-chief during a time of continued anxiety in America and has benefited from a notable rallying around the flag (and the presidency) since the events of September 11, 2001.

Former Lieutenant Kerry is a decorated Vietnam War veteran. He served two tours of duty in Vietnam and famously put his life on the line pulling an injured fellow sailor out of the Mekong Delta. After his second tour of duty Kerry became involved in the anti-war movement. Dressed in his navy uniform, he denounced the war in a nation-stopping address to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1971, gaining himself a place on Richard Nixon's enemies list in the process. Bush avoided service in Vietnam by gaining a favoured passage into the National Guard as a trainee pilot. Evidence suggests his well-connected father secured young George this privileged position.

A president Kerry is likely to be quite different from a president Bush. Domestically Kerry would push to raise taxes on those earning more than $US200,000 ($271,000) a year, a group Bush has secured sizeable tax cuts for. Kerry would safeguard abortion rights, push for medical coverage for more Americans and be significantly more proactive on environmental issues (it would be hard to be much worse than Bush on the crucial issue of greenhouse gasses). Internationally Kerry would undoubtedly mend some strained relationships in Europe and elsewhere. Whether this would lead to substantial changes in Iraq and the Middle East in general is difficult to say. Kerry's early differences are more likely to be in tone and style, and he is unlikely to pull America back from its global war on terror.
If anything, Kerry's instincts are more internationalist and possibly more expansionist than Bush's.


A Kerry administration is likely to disappoint those who hope for US to be less involved in world affairs.

Kerry's record would suggest a Wilsonian internationalist approach to foreign affairs with America actively promoting democracy and human rights in a broad number of countries.

Whether Kerry can win today and become the 44th American president is too close to call. He definitely has a chance, principally as a result of his strong performances in the presidential debates.

Facing Bush in a debate is more difficult than many might assume. Bush doesn't debate in a conventional sense. Instead he largely talks about his beliefs, convictions, values and aspirations for America. This can be off-putting to candidates used to arguing over facts and strategies. Those who call Bush's approach simple miss the point that its simplicity is what makes it effective, and frequently infuriating to Bush's opponents.

Kerry, however, was not fazed by Bush's style in the debates. Instead, the riled candidate turned out to be Bush himself, who had to endure Kerry's scathing criticism of the administration's handling of the Iraq situation.

Kerry's record and promises all point to him as a real alternative to Bush and perhaps a Kerry presidency could help America regain some of the credibility it has lacked since that other JFK was lost to America and the world in Dallas, Texas, in 1963.

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First published in The Courier-Mail on October 23, 2004.

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About the Author

Brendon O'Connor is an Associate Professor in the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and is the 2008 Australia Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC. He is the editor of seven books on anti-Americanism and has also published articles and books on American welfare policy, presidential politics, US foreign policy, and Australian-American relations.

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