John Kerry has a fundamental strategic problem that he must resolve during this week’s Democratic National Convention in Boston: Should he campaign on the nexus of issues surrounding terror or focus on domestic concerns?
As Kerry wrestles with this strategic decision, he has to be watching the ground eroding beneath his feet. Good economic news saps his core appeal. The liberal media has retreated from lamenting the recession to bemoaning the “jobless recovery,” to wailing that while the recovery is creating jobs, wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation. With each month, the economic case for the Democrats ebbs away.
Similarly, President Bush is making real progress in putting Iraq behind him. In April, his presidency seemed in danger when 125 American soldiers died. But in May, the death toll was 64 and in June it fell down to 31. The July data indicate a slightly higher death toll as the transition in Baghdad forces the terrorists’ hand, but the long-term trend toward pacification erodes Kerry’s other key issue against Bush.
Beneath the relatively even division in the polls lies a fundamental reality: Voters overwhelmingly side with Bush as the better wartime president – the best at handling terror, weapons of mass destruction, North Korea, Iran, and homeland security. But by equally large margins, they feel Kerry is the better peacetime president – the man best suited to creating jobs, improving education, the environment, health care, prescription-drug prices, Social Security and Medicare.
Until now, terrorism and national-security issues have dominated the national dialogue. Despite the casualties in Iraq, the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, the faulty intelligence before the war, the lax response to the pre-9/11 warnings and the lack of anticipation of Iraqi resistance, Bush still holds a big lead on terror-related issues. All the negative press has really been positive for Bush, because it ratifies his strength as the issue.
At his convention, Kerry has a chance to turn the national debate to the domestic-policy issues on which he holds a lead. He can warn about the budget deficit, convince voters that Social Security and Medicare are in jeopardy, attack Bush’s prescription-drug plan as inadequate and say the recovery has failed to make the lives of individual Americans any better. In doing so, he could bank on his ability to increase the saliency of these issues and seek to turn the election back to turf on which he holds a natural partisan advantage.
But, in focusing on these peacetime issues, Kerry implicitly cedes the terror issue to Bush. He fails to make the case that he is up to handling the al Qaeda threat and does nothing to reinforce his credentials as a leader in a time of international crisis. Revisiting his Vietnam War record won’t do enough to bolster the credentials he needs. He has to weigh in on today’s terror issues and show he is up to the job.
Yet the more he talks about terror, 9/11, Iraq or any of these national-security issues, the more he ratifies them as the key questions on which the election must turn. But he can’t hope to match Bush’s proficiency here – and his attempts to do so will likely just elevate the centrality of these issues in the voters’ minds.
Kerry has to use the convention, essentially, to turn back the clock to the pre-9/11 days and focus the election of 2004 on the same questions over which the election of 2000 was fought.
Yet to do so, he has to swim uphill against the current: The recent release of the 9/11 report, four days before the Democratic Convention opens, makes it harder than ever to swing attention back to John Kerry’s issues.
For Kerry to gain, he has got to introduce other issues into the national agenda. That has to be the goal of his convention.
Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. Look for his new book, Rewriting History.
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