WASHINGTON — John Kerry's campaign staffers are feeling pretty good right now. They have absorbed a massive ad blitz from the Bush team and are still on the right side of the poll numbers. They have a hard time holding back the smiles when they point out that no sitting president in the last 50 years has trailed at this point in a campaign and still won reelection.
In fact, the bad news from Iraq has so overtaken this campaign right now, that the Kerry people feel all they need to do is sit back and wait. Then, at the proper moment, one that is timely but not too political, they will pounce on the president with their alternative plan on Iraq.
And that plan is...
Well, that's not completely clear. There's one on the way, they say, but they are not yet ready to discuss it. Or at least not completely ready. They do say that Senator Kerry plans to "internationalize" the conflict, involve allies or the UN to help stabilize the situation in Iraq. That approach is winning a lot of supporters, they say, including President Bush, who has moved toward Kerry's position.
Not so, say the Bushies. The president is not moving toward Kerry. In fact, they think Kerry is moving toward Mr. Bush.
And there you have it, America - a campaign that rests on the burning question of who is copying whose position, with, one can only assume by the rhetoric, a final resting place that has both candidates agreeing in principle to the same course in Iraq. That course? Get our troops out and other troops in.
Get ready for debates with cerebral exchanges like this.
Bush: I propose getting our allies more involved in Iraq as soon as possible.
Kerry: I proposed that first.
Bush: No you didn't.
Kerry: Yes, I did.
At this point one or both will put their fingers in their ears and yell, "I'm not listening!" and you'll promptly tune to a "Hee Haw" rerun.
Of course, the truly burning questions in Iraq are answerable only with time - time longer than just from now to November. Can a democracy survive there? Can the country hold together as a single nation? Can it be stable? How long would US forces have to be there to assure any of those things?
There are no good answers to these questions, politically speaking. Maybe the Kerry or the Bush camp can come up with a remarkable solution that neatly ties everything together, but looking at the predicament it's hard to see how.
Whether you believed in the war or not, the reality of the situation now is that a nation the size of California - sitting smack dab in the middle of the Middle East with three ethnic groups and countless tribes that dislike one another - is a mess. It's not clear who's going to lead it. It's not clear if much of the population will follow whoever does lead it. And as much as everyone wants to get American troops out of there as soon as possible, there's no telling how soon that might be. Simply pulling troops out now will lead to chaos, and creating a schedule for removal based upon random dates is pointless. The situation is too fluid. If Iraq is truly going to be stable, there will probably need to be some kind of foreign military force there for years, not months.
So the responsible position, the one both Kerry and Bush now back, is to try to get the international community involved so that the Iraqi occupation becomes more than just another symbol of the US global hegemonic agenda, as some in the world already perceive it. The problem is going to be finding a country interested in sending its sons and daughters there.
Kerry does have one trump card here. He argues that he could get more done because the Bush administration has alienated much of the world by ignoring it, and he may have a point. This White House doesn't exactly have a big fan base in Europe, or most other places for that matter. But at the same time, even with better relations, a Kerry administration would still be asking other nations to send their soldiers to die in a mess they didn't make. That may be possible, but it seems an awfully difficult sale.
In the end, though, all the policy positions on Iraq may be moot. And that is the real reason the people in the Kerry campaign are smiling.
People in this town can bandy about plans and ideas and argue about who's copying whom. If the debates and election hinge on the issue of how - and how quickly - the US can get the troops out of Iraq, the different or not so different approaches aren't going to matter all that much. The point is if everyone is focused on how to get the troops out of Iraq, that means the situation is still a mess and Bush will be held responsible.
And Iraq? That will be the lucky winner's prize.