Jewish World Review Feb. 23, 2004 / 1 Adar, 5764
Memo to Bush: Define Kerry now, before he does
The Battle of Bush is now largely over. The 43rd president, despite a record of prodigious success, has managed only a job approval rating hovering around the same 48 to 50 percent level he got in the 2000 election.
His administration has made no converts. As galling as this bad news must be for a president who has made us safe for the past two and a half years, led the way to 8 percent economic growth, transformed the federal role in education, and passed a Medicare drug benefit, it is the grim but necessary conclusion we must draw from the polling data at hand.
As an incumbent president, he still has an incredible ability to shape events and to convince Americans who voted against him to approve of his job performance, the opportunity to do so is dwindling rapidly. His inability to gain a point after the State of the Union his not a good omen.
But if the Battle of Bush is over, the Battle of Kerry has just begun.
Bush's team must realize that the struggle to define Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is now on and will be largely over by spring. The early Democratic primaries have front-loaded not just their nominating process but the entire election cycle. Voters will have largely formulated their opinion of the Democratic nominee two months from now. Bush must seize this narrow window of opportunity by running national negative ads starting right now.
Kerry is preoccupied, and his financial resources are fully committed to the remaining primaries. While his rivals are beaten, he has yet to win enough delegates to be nominated and Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C) seems not to be withdrawing anytime soon.
While the Massachusetts senator is financially overextended, it is time for Bush to seize the offensive and attack through paid ads. (It would be a mistake for the president to lead the charge offensively that has to come later. The attack should be through paid media.)
Bush's father was able to wait for the Republican convention to define Michael Dukakis. But if the son waits that long, he will be facing a Clinton, not a Dukakis.
Kerry's vulnerability through his Senate voting record is obvious. His frequent votes in favor of raising taxes will make a prime target for the GOP ads. But Bush's people must take care to aim negatives that switch voters rather than those that just re-enforce the determination of Republicans.
In this highly divided country, negatives that relate to Kerry's opposition to tax cuts or his ambiguous positions on the war on terror will not cut into the ranks of those who voted for Al Gore. It is rather the issues that would divide Democrats that suggest fertile lines of attack welfare reform, gay rights, crime, tax increases.
Republicans should also examine two other areas of potential attack: Kerry's attendance record during the campaign and the fact that he was Dukakis's lieutenant governor in Massachusetts.
Too often, politicians cut one another slack on missing votes during a presidential campaign. But Kerry missed one-third of the votes in 2003. While his attendance record beforehand was good, voters will not be understanding about an elected official who ignores his duty while he seeks another job. The specifics of the votes he missed on issues like unemployment insurance, homeland security funding,
Medicare appropriations are particularly good ways to attack him.
While voters may feel that the implicit identification of Kerry with Dukakis simply because they both come from the same state is unfair, the fact that Dukakis ran with Kerry (even if they were nominated in separate primaries) makes the identification more reasonable.
But whatever the lines of attack are to be, Bush needs to pull the trigger on national paid-media attacks now. Kerry will never have another chance to make a first impression.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, among others, Off with Their Heads: Traitors, Crooks & Obstructionists in American Politics, Media & Business" Comment by clicking here.
© 2003, Dick Morris