Central issue is supremacy
The basic issue in the 2004 election is not a clash of two leaders or two parties or even two ideologies. It is a battle between two issues for supremacy. It boils down to a simple question: Do voters want a wartime or a peacetime president?
Even as the polling shows a nation evenly divided, Americans are curiously united in their perceptions of the two candidates. By 20 points or more, they agree that Bush is better on terrorism, national defense, and homeland security. Even on Iraq, even on the worst days, they give Bush a 10-point margin over Kerry. On the other hand, they give Kerry a lead of double digits on job creation, education, healthcare, Social Security, prescription drug prices and the environment.
To fight the war on terror, they want Bush. To handle domestic problems, they want Kerry. How similar the situation is to the 1945 Churchill vs. Atlee election in the United Kingdom. There, even though Britain was still at war with Japan – and nobody knew about the bomb as yet – voters opted for Atlee’s superior capacity to deliver on peacetime promises like healthcare and social security.
Grasping this basic fact, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is taking a page out of the Clinton playbook for 1996 and the Bush strategy of 2000 and trying some triangulation of his own. While Clinton hugged the GOP on issues like welfare reform and deficit reduction and Bush mimicked the Democratic agenda by stressing education standards and vowing to leave “no child behind,” so Kerry is broadly supportive of Bush’s actions in Iraq and in the war on terror.
Kerry’s reluctance to part company with Bush on current and future steps in Baghdad does not, of course, stop him from criticizing past administration actions, but he is careful not to allow any real daylight to shine through his proposals for the future in Iraq and those of the Bush people. Like the administration, he wants more international support for our efforts and like the president he wants to turn power over to the Iraqis as quickly as possible. Most important, like Bush, he does not want to withdraw and vows to stay the course.
When an insurgent challenges an incumbent, he can always choose the field of battle by articulating precisely and narrowly the differences between them. Too often, challengers fall into the trap of criticizing everything their opponent does. By doing so, they take on their adversary’s strong points as well as his weak ones. A shrewd challenger bypasses the strong points, professing agreement, and concentrates on the weak ones instead. Unless the challenger attacks the incumbent over the strong elements in his record, the incumbent has difficulty putting his strengths into play. There is no more potent way to dismiss the achievements of one’s adversary than to praise them, and thereby banish them, from the campaign.
Kerry’s strategy is to stress his differences over Bush’s weaknesses like healthcare, Medicare, the environment, Social Security, stem-cell research and the like while narrowing the gap between them over terrorism and the president’s strength.
For Bush, the challenge is not only to prove his supremacy in the areas of terrorism, war, security and the like, but to keep these issues on the front page. In these dual challenges, he must walk a tightrope between success and failure. If Iraq blows up or there are serious breaches in our homeland security, he could lose his lead on these key issues, as he did briefly in April. But if all goes well and Baghdad is quiescent, the terror issue could lose its saliency and the Kerry domestic-policy advantages could move to the fore. Too much success drives his best issue off center stage. Too much failure makes it no longer his issue.
For Kerry, the frustration is an inability to control events. He cannot determine the saliency of issues. Only events far beyond his control can accomplish that. The Democrat is forced to wage an essentially passive campaign, capitalizing on Bush’s failures by narrowing the gap on the terror issue and on the incumbent’s successes by driving home the differences on domestic policies.
Each candidate has his own limitations and frustrations, which makes 2004 a true strategic nightmare for both sides.
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Rewriting History.
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