07/22/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

7 Days : Kerry on Obama, McCain, Iraq & Flip-Flopping with Huffington, Vanden Heuvel and Green

When Barack Obama first met Katrina vanden Heuvel of The Nation magazine, he
said, "Remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good." So in a week when the conversation is rising about what the left should properly do when the presumptive nominee appears to emphasize his moderate side, I'd like to excerpt at greater length than usual in our weekly 7 Days in America blog an interesting conversation about this with John Kerry -- it's always instructive when the '04 Democratic nominee analyzes the '08 Democratic nominee -- and with the ubiquitous two leading ladies of the left, Arianna and Katrina.

Three points first.

-- The two most successful Democratic politicians on the past century, the only two to win the presidency more than once, were renowned for their ability to keep options open with strategic ambiguity. FDR and Bill Clinton often infuriated their supporters and staff. But they figured out how to win and govern in a country more to the right than our European parents.

-- The two greatest Black leaders in our lifetime, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, both understood tactical retreats to get to their principled goal -- integration in America and a free South Africa. To read Taylor Branch's biographies and Richard Stengel (Mandela's biographer) in Time this week, it's hard to miss how Obama seems to be emulating their ability to maneuver while always keeping their "eye on the prize." Those historic figures understand the difference between flexible tactics and fixed principles.

-- Fact is, the only person who'll figure out how much to tack this way or that to get to 270 electoral votes is Barack Obama. Since the alternative is a militarist who'll continue our occupation in Iraq and Bush's economics and Scalia's reign on the Court, progressives have no political leverage over the next four months over Obama. BUT, should he win, they will have enormous leverage over his agenda and prospects in 2012 because they are a cornerstone of his political base.

Listen to the full show on here.


KERRY: Q: You're just back from a Middle East trip where you spoke to most of its leaders. What are they saying about the U.S. role there?

"They're concerned about Iran, they are genuinely concerned about Iran. They are particularly concerned about the Shiia crescent, as it's referred to, and the Shiia influence. And obviously for Israel, it's an existential issue and it doesn't get more serious. So Iran is a serious topic over there, having replaced Iraq in many ways, and they are all concerned about the influence of Iran in Iraq."

KERRY: Q: Especially after Sy Hersh's New Yorker piece on U.S covert lethal ops in Iran, how worried are you that Bush will do something provocative in
Iran in the months before he leaves office?

"Well, Mark, we've learned this president is capable of making miscalculations. And doing something against the better advice of an awful lot of people. Because that's exactly what he did and how he approached Iraq. It went against the things that he promised us, ranging from exhausting the remedies of inspections of the United Nations, to planning for the war, to building a legitimate coalition, and to going in as a last resort; so every one of those things was a promise broken...[As for attacking Iran], Defense Secretary Gates made it very clear, to at least us in the Senate, that he doesn't believe that's where things ought to be at right now. There are many leaders of the military that have serious reservations about what kind of impact that type of choice would have on Iraq, on our military itself, as well as on the global war on terror."

KERRY: Q: How can McCain continue to argue that setting a withdrawal date for leaving Iraq is surrender when the government we're there to protect has just said that a withdrawal date would be a good and necessary thing?

"I think it's going to be very difficult for him, obviously. Because all along many of us have said that picking a date is a way of setting a target and demanding a change of behavior. I think that the way to get the Iraqis to assume responsibility is in fact to redeploy and put your troops in a different position. Now, the British did that in Basra -- the British pulled back to the airport and really forced Prime Minister Maliki to use the Iraqis to go down there and do what he did, and in fact it's had a profound positive impact because it gave them confidence, it showed the world that they were able to go and do something constructive. That's what many of us have been arguing for a long period of time; that's exactly what our policy ought to do. On the contrary, the McCain/Bush policy is one that sends an alternative message to the Iraqis, which is hey, we're gonna be there as long as it takes, and you guys can take as long as you want."

KERRY: Q: You've opened up a new line of analysis last week on Face the Nation when you argued that the issue is not McCain's experience but his judgment. Expand on that.

"I think it's an argument that has to be repeated over and over again and supported by facts. And it is supported by facts. The fact is that John McCain -- who I like, incidentally, and respect enormously for his military service, and no one will ever challenge it or question it -- but that doesn't mean that he's been correct in making the judgments he made or even drawing the lessons that he's drawn from those experiences. It is very clear that John McCain said -- and I'm almost quoting him -- that going into Iraq will be one of the best things we can do for America and for the world. Well, it hasn't been; it's been one of the worst things we've done, in terms of our position in the world, in terms of the war on terror, in terms of Iraq... and the fact is the American people understand that."

Q: The McCain camp is throwing the kitchen sink at Obama over alleged "flip-flopping," a charge Bush exploited against you in 2004. How should Obama respond?

"I think that the mistake I made was the judgment that the people had learned the truth, that there was enough truth out there, that people knew what the truth was. We learned a bitter lesson -- that if they're spending money telling lies, you've got to spend an equal amount or more to counter the lies. And we just made a miscalculation that the American people knew what the truth was, and we needed to talk about more serious things. I regret that because obviously it made a difference. I'll give you an example: they accused me of being a flip-flopper. The only thing in my career that they found to suggest I had, quote, flip-flopped on, was one vote in the Senate where I voted for an amendment that would've funded the war if we had a plan and paid for it. And when the Senate didn't pass making a plan and paying for it, I voted against it. I said OK, I'm not going to vote for that, and they turned that into 'Kerry flip-flopped.' The fact is, John McCain himself has changed on fundamental principals."

KERRY: Q: What about Obama's actual change of position on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act vote, which you opposed?

"Barack Obama legitimately felt that enough compromise had been made, that what he needed to do was make a presidential decision, knowing that as president he could review it. But for the time being he decided that this was the right way to protect the nation. So he made a judgment, a presidential kind of decision, which is a hard one to make in the middle of a campaign. But I'm confident that a constitutional law professor, Barack Obama, knowing what he believes and cares about, will not only review the law but will go back and guarantee the appropriate judicial review process is put in place, which is the reason I voted against it [...]. I think people need to be less nervous and frankly a little more focused on John McCain's flip-flops, and what John McCain means in terms of all these issues. People who think they are hurting today with gas prices, with foreclosures, with loss of jobs and wages that don't go up, then they are going to love John McCain. Because he's promised that he's gonna have permanent tax cuts in the same shape that helped bring us to where we are today."

KERRY: Q: Can McCain politically succeed by repeating that he can balance the budget even though his tax cuts will drain trillions from the federal treasury and that Obama will raise everyone's taxes when his plan doesn't raise taxes on those earning under $250,000 a year?

"So what you're asking me is, can he lie his way to the presidency? Well, I don't think it's gonna happen this time, and it's up to you and a lot of other people to make certain... you know, when I ran four years ago, we didn't have Facebook, and blogging was just starting out...

GREEN: "Did we have typewriters when you ran?"

KERRY: (laughs) It wasn't that long ago, Mark! So there's been a lot of changes now, and I think there's much greater accountability. What really excites me about the Obama candidacy, and the reason I became involved in it early, is that government needs to be made accountable again. And the only way to do that is create a kind of grassroots movement where you hold people in Washington accountable for the way they vote. Now, you can't be one hundred percent; people on our side of the fence have just got to wake up to realize that, you know, you're not going to agree with somebody one hundred percent of the time, but that if you get somebody that wants to fix the tax code, who wants to fix No Child Left Behind and make our schools work, who wants an energy policy that makes sense and deals with global climate change, who wants to restore America's position in the world with a responsible foreign policy, who wants to have healthcare that's universal for every American... my God, grab it, folks! If we could get three of those things passed in the first four years, we'd have the greatest legislative session we've had since Lyndon Johnson was President of the United States.

HUFFINGTON: Q: What's your take on Kerry's view of Obama's so-called "flip-flopping"?

"I've been writing about this issue purely in terms of realpolitik, and not about principle or what we care about as progressives. [And let's put aside] the public finance campaign, which was a necessary shift. But the shifts on FISA, the shifts on gun control, have been very troubling in terms of his brand, in terms of his leadership, in terms of what he's supposed to be. And the Republicans are using it again and again -- and of course exaggerating it, but that's something that his campaign should be very very aware of."

VANDEN HEUVEL: I agree and disagree with Arianna. I'm not sure Obama can win in November with a campaign as progressive as some of us who aren't seeking the White House would like. The Nation gave a tough love endorsement of Obama, more about the movement that he is bringing into politics, the progressive constituencies, the energy into an electoral politics that's been kind of calcified. Do I agree with his change on FISA? The Nation just joined the ACLU yesterday to challenge the law in court because we think it's possible to defend this country from terrorists while also protecting its rights and freedoms. I think that we have to build a movement from below and around the grassroots and the netroots, and that is where change is gonna come. I think that the hope is that Obama engages with the grassroots as a former community organizer. And we've got to keep pushing and expanding the space."

HUFFINGTON: "This is not about the left. For me, this is all about winning.
And it's not my criticism of what Obama has been doing; it's no different than what Frank Rich wrote in the Times on Sunday, which is that he's got to run a big campaign. If he moves down to slicing and dicing, and what the polls want and what the swing voters want and what John Kerry thinks is presidential rather than senatorial, then he's just another pawn and he misses the moment, he misses the zeitgeist. The zeitgeist is so much with him on every level, and so the numbers right now should be way different than what they are."

VANDEN HEUVEL: "Arianna, I met Obama briefly once, and the first thing he said to me, knowing I was editor of The Nation, was 'just remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good'. And I think -- "

HUFFINGTON: "Well, that's the Tom Daschle position."

VANDEN HEUVEL: "I know, but this is the problem. If we had paid attention to what Obama was saying on the campaign trail during the primaries, The Nation disagreed with a lot of his issues. He wants to reach out to Independents, and Republicans, or 'Obamicans'. You're seeing someone who's trying to craft this new coalition, a man whose ideology is very unclear. He's an unconventional politician in an unconventional time. And we want him to stand up and take leadership -- I agree with you, Arianna -- that is part of what he stood for as a brand. This is a man who once said in his first book, you know, I'm just kind of a blank slate onto which people project their politics."

HUFFINGTON: "But that's not what I'm saying; it's not about issues. What he
said about the teachers union was great. You could say that was not progressive, or not from the left. I think it's accurate, I think you need to transform what's happening in education, which includes transformation within the union. I loved what he said about faith-based projects. So I'm trying to make it very clear that I'm not criticizing from the left. I'm criticizing from the point of view of what a winning strategy is, and if we're going to appeal to the fifty percent (almost) of eligible voters who don't vote, what they're looking for more than anything is clarity, leadership, and the sense of somebody who's standing for what he believes. And even if they disagree, that's fine. That's really what's begun to be missing from what he's saying."

VANDEN HEUVEL: Q: What did you think about Kerry's regional take on Iraq
and the US? "I think that is absolutely how we need to think about Iraq and Iran. It seems to me that as we talk about withdrawal from Iraq, a US timetable is a precondition to bringing in other countries in the region by having a tough, smart diplomacy. OPEC warns that, if there's a military conflict, oil prices are just going to skyrocket, if they can go even higher. The military in this country is opposed [to such a conflict]. So I think we need to look at Iraq as a regional issue. Because of all the financial blood-letting and human blood-letting, we've got to find a way out. And Obama can't waver on that -- that is the key. On healthcare, on the war, if he starts wavering on that, then I do think we'll see defection on the left."

VANDEN HEUVEL: Q: If Bush believes in preemptive war, how about preemptive impeachment? While there won't be impeachment proceedings this year, what about the House letting him know that IF he attacks Iran without adequate cause in a kind of October Surprise, it would begin proceedings?

"It's a great idea, you should write it, Mark, and counter the kind of false stuff Warren Christopher and Jim Baker, last seen in Florida recount land, are peddling about war powers and how we need to revise them. They've been misused and abused already. But I personally think our main ally in stopping this war is not Congress. It's our military."

HUFFINGTON: Q: What's the impact of Maliki urging a withdrawal date for US troops?

"Well, you see, that's what I would have liked to have seen Obama do this week, to have given a speech that said that the Iraqi people don't want us there beyond a certain date. How many people in America really know what the Prime Minister of Iraq is asking for? That's what somebody running for office at the highest level can do -- he can take something like that and make it the big news story."

VANDEN HEUVEL: Q: This week McCain admitted he doesn't use a computer and his economic guru Phil Gramm attacked critics of the economy as "whiners" engaged in a "mental recession." How vulnerable is McCain and his free market approach to the

"I think we've moved into a whole new terrain with John McCain and the economy. I mean, with his surrogate, Phil Gramm, talking about how we're in a 'mental recession' and McCain goes to Michigan, maybe the hardest-hit state in the country when it comes to unemployment yesterday, and workers sit there in stony silence. I think that McCain's surrogate just gave Obama's campaign what it needs at this moment, when 'terrorism' to many people may mean losing their jobs, their pensions, and their livelihoods... This gives new meaning to cluelessness, to being out of touch."