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Basic Instinct

The choice of John Edwards says many good things about John Kerry. And one worrying thing: He thinks he has the national security issue well in hand. In mid-June, The Washington Post reported that Kerry had told friends he needed a running mate who would help him overcome his image as a Massachusetts liberal, but not one who added foreign policy heft. On foreign policy, the friends claimed, Kerry believed he could handle things on his own.

Those friends were right. Ever since Edwards joined the ticket, the Kerry campaign has been focusing on "values," which Kerry last weekend called "the heart of our campaign." Edwards, of course, talks masterfully about values, as he does about the economic struggles of the middle class. And Democratic strategists are giddy that he will appeal to the rural and Southern voters Kerry couldn't reach on his own.

As for foreign policy, Kerry is--as predicted--handling it largely on his own. Last week, campaign aides acknowledged, in the Post's words, that "Kerry will be the one to carry the national security message." When Newsweek asked Edwards a question about nuclear proliferation in a joint interview, Kerry jumped in with a quick, "Do you mind?" and answered it himself.

No one should be surprised by Kerry's behavior. He's never been a Clintonesque economic policy wonk or a Lieberman-style values maven. Foreign policy is what he prides himself on. He spent part of his youth abroad. He's served on the Foreign Relations Committee since entering the Senate. International affairs is the subject of his most significant book. And his route into politics was the Vietnam War.

But it's precisely because Kerry feels so confident about his foreign policy credentials that he may overestimate the degree to which that confidence is shared by the public. No matter what he has told friends, Kerry doesn't have the foreign policy issue well in hand. It's true that Bush's edge on national security has narrowed in recent months--from a 21-point lead in April to a virtual tie on June 20, according to the Post. But the gap hasn't closed because Kerry has won America's trust on issues of war and peace; it has closed because Bush has lost it. During that same period, Bush's approval rating on the war on terrorism plummeted from 63 to 50 percent, as mounting casualties turned the public against the war in Iraq.

But, if U.S. casualties decline (as they may well, if American troops stick closer to their bases) and the news from Iraq improves (or just falls off the front page), Bush's national security numbers will rise, and so will his lead over Kerry. Indeed, this week a new Post poll shows Bush's war on terrorism rating creeping back up to 55 percent and the president reopening a nine-point lead on the issue. Kerry's apparent success on national security is akin to his apparent success on economic issues earlier this year. Voters weren't responding to his message, they were responding to the bad economy. Once jobs began coming back, Kerry's advantage declined.

Bush could certainly lose the election on national security, but Kerry can't win it unless he crosses one critical threshold: He has to convince voters he's tough enough to protect America from terrorism. According to a June Investor's Business Daily poll, only 41 percent of Americans believe Kerry is "comfortable projecting America's power abroad," compared with 72 percent for Bush. At some crucial moment in the campaign, Kerry will face the post-September 11 equivalent of that famous question Michael Dukakis flubbed about opposing the death penalty if someone raped and murdered his wife. Terrorism is today what crime was then--the litmus test for Democratic toughness. And there is reason to worry that, given Kerry's deep-seated foreign policy instincts, he won't get the answer right.

Intellectually, Kerry knows he must show he'd go after the terrorists with a vengeance. But that's not where his heart lies. The topic that arouses his greatest passion--the one that has guided his entire career--is improving America's relations with the world. Kerry's 1997 book, The New War, about international crime, urges "an entirely new, multilateral code of behavior." At the 1993 confirmation hearings for Secretary of State nominee Warren Christopher, Kerry called for "an all-out effort to strengthen international institutions." In 1995, Kerry split with many Senate Democrats and voted against lifting the Bosnian arms embargo, in large part because doing so would have risked a split with Europe. According to the Post, when Bill Clinton called America the "indispensable nation" in his second inaugural address, Kerry decried Clinton's "arrogant, obnoxious tone." Even the 1991 Gulf war, which Kerry's aides now cite as a model of multilateral cooperation, struck him as suspiciously unilateral at the time. The coalition arrayed against Saddam Hussein, Kerry argued, "lacks a true United Nations collective security effort, with the full measure of international cooperation and burden-sharing."

This year, Kerry has sounded the same themes, at times subtly undermining his claim to care about defeating the terrorists above all else. At a debate in Wisconsin in February, Kerry said, "The worst thing this president does is his lack of cooperation with other countries." When he gave a much-hyped series of foreign policy speeches in May and June, he devoted the first to restoring America's alliances and only the second to preventing a nuclear, chemical, or biological attack. Kerry no longer consistently bashes the president for failing to send U.S. troops to capture Osama bin Laden at the end of the Afghan war--a useful way of signaling how aggressively he'd wage the war on terrorism. And, for the last night of the Democratic convention, the Kerry campaign has chosen the theme: "Stronger at home, respected in the world."

Kerry is right that anti-Americanism constitutes a major problem, a problem the Bush administration barely acknowledges. And he's right that rebuilding foreign ties is part of keeping America safe. But voters already know a Democratic president would improve relations with the world. What they don't know is whether he would defy the world, if necessary, to strike a blow against terrorism. On that crucial question, John Kerry still hasn't won the public trust. And neither George W. Bush nor John Edwards will do it for him.

This article originally ran in the July 26, 2004, issue of the magazine.