In 2004, John Kerry said in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention,
we shouldn’t be opening firehouses in Baghdad and shutting them in the United States of America.
The line got huge applause. Christopher Hitchens noted and feared this, calling it “one of the sourest and nastiest and cheapest notes to have been struck for some time.” But Kerry knew a good line when he heard it, and re-used it endlessly in his stump speech and the debates—which he won.
Kerry played Mitt Romney in Obama’s debate prep. He taught some lessons that Obama used last night. Obama’s version of the same riff was:
the other thing that we have to do is recognize that we can’t continue to do nation building in these regions. Part of American leadership is making sure that we’re doing nation building here at home.
…and it wasn’t an accident or a minor point: Obama used versions of the line four times, unprompted.
I haven’t seen a single commentator noting the line. But I’ll wager it played a huge role in convincing undecided voters to give Obama a huge lead, 30 points, in the CBS instapoll. Though I can’t find the article, I remember a Kerry aide from 2004 commenting, a bit uncomfortably, that swing voters, who then as now tended to be low-information voters, were particular fans of the firehouse spiel.
Washington is a city of self-styled internationalists. (It would be bad manners to say “militarists,” much less to note that the Pentagon is a huge driver of the local economy, along with lobbying.) There’s a strong institutional bias in favor of candidates who call for higher military spending, lots of military interventions, and a hair-trigger attitude towards crises. But the American people have always been much more leery of military spending and foreign wars than the political class is. Scott Rasmussen—yes, that one—noted the disjuncture last month, in explaining why Republican efforts to make higher military spending a campaign winner were destined to fail. Polls on military spending are so unfavorable to the Republican position that Obama is running ads attacking Romney for wanting to spend more on defense. Military spending hikes are favored by 58 percent of Republicans—but only 40 percent of all voters.
American isolationism has very large costs. It drives our shocking lack of policy learning—our unwillingness to learn from other countries that do anything better than we do—as well as relative indifference to global problems from hunger to climate change and beyond. But it also has its benefits: the war machine that Romney and the neocons would like to sell, the public isn’t buying.
This is a line of attack likely to fly under the radar of elites, or even offend them. But this is a democracy. And I think Obama just won Ohio.