Bush plays chess while Kerry plays checkers

Published 12:00 am Thursday, October 21, 2004

Commentary by Dick Morris

With only two weeks to go, President Bush and his campaign demonstrated once again that they are playing chess while Kerry is playing checkers.

In a feat of strategy worthy of the greatest admiration, they realized that the entire race would change complexion once the third debate kindled a focus on domestic disagreements in what had been, until then, a foreign-policy contest.

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Knowing that Kerry – or any Democrat – has an advantage in a contest over domestic policy, they prepared for a parry during and after the third debate, which has given their candidate the lead once again.

To blunt the Kerry attacks on the president’s foreign policy and, in particular, on the war in Iraq, Bush had accused the Democrat of flip-flopping on the war, voting for it, then opposing its funding, then supporting it again and now opposing it while saying, nevertheless, that he will fight it with more troops if he is elected.

But the flip-flop attack has waned in recent weeks as a strong and firm Kerry showed himself in the debates firmly committed to his views and his projected course of action, however wrongheaded and contradictory it may be. It is very hard to make the accusation of inconsistency stick in a debate when your opponent is disciplined, stays within his talking points and takes a consistent position in all three clashes.

But as Kerry moved to domestic policy and extolled his “plan” for job creation, health care, Social Security and Medicare, Bush shifted his attack – much less calling Kerry a flip-flopper, much more accusing him of liberalism and tax-and-spend policies.

By declaring in the third debate that Kerry inhabits the far left bank of our politics, well away from the mainstream, Bush hit pay dirt.

Knowing that Kerry would seek to win the domestic issues by promising the moon, Bush, in great jujitsu style, used the Democrat’s strength against him, coming around his right flank adding up the cost of the promises and underscoring his adversary’s liberalism.

Attacking a Democratic opponent as a liberal is a tactic the Bushes have used with success in the past. In the closing weeks of the 1992 campaign, President Bush pulled even with Clinton-Gore by labeling the Arkansas governor as liberal. (The highly political announcement of Iran-Contra Special Prosecutor Lawrence Walsh – five days before the election – that he planned to indict Reagan Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger likely gave Bill Clinton the bounce he needed to finish 5 points ahead of the president.)

And once again the attack seems to be working. Bush leads Kerry by 4 points in the Zogby tracking poll, 3 in the Rasmussen poll, 8 in the Gallup and 6 in Newsweek’s.

The beauty of the Bush attack is that it is fueled as much by Kerry’s proposals as by the Republican jabs. With every new speech, Kerry shows his liberalism and makes promises that dig him an ever deeper hole. Should he try to tack to the right to rebut the accusation, he will run into the old charge of flip-flopper and rekindle doubts about his ability to stick to a position.

But as this marathon campaign draws to a close, we must remember how volatile American elections have become. As the Walsh announcement weighed heavily in 1992, so were the contests of 1996 and 2000 also heavily influenced by last-minute developments.

In 1996, Clinton saw his lead over Bob Dole dwindle from 17 points to the 9 by which he ultimately won as the China fund-raising scandal dominated the news in the campaign’s final two weeks. In 2000, news of Bush’s previously undisclosed DUI arrest in Maine helped Al Gore obliterate a 4-point Bush lead in the final weekend.

An October surprise this year is most likely to come from al Qaeda, which is probably determined to leave its mark on our elections as surely as they did in those already held this year in Spain by blowing up a train and in Australia by attacking their embassy in Jakarta. Just as the terrorists attacked in Israel before every recent election, so they will probably try to get at us here in the United States.

Hopefully they will not succeed in their acts of terror, but even their attempts are likely to remind us of what a dangerous world we inhabit, another factor that will boost Bush’s chances.

Dick Morris was an adviser to Bill Clinton for 20 years. E-mail Dick Morris is dmredding@aol.com.