Jewish World Review March 22, 2004 / 29 Adar, 5764
On terror and jobs, Bush and Kerry face Catch-22
Behind the exchange of negative ads and rebuttals that animated the opening salvos of the presidential race this week lay a strategic dilemma in both the Bush and Kerry camps.
Each man has a problem that is the mirror image of the other's. Each one owns an issue: Sen. John Kerry has the economy, and President Bush has terrorism.
So each man wants to achieve three things: (1) increase the saliency of his issue, (2) widen the gap between them on that issue, and (3) narrow the gap between them on his adversary's issue.
So here's the quandary: If either man talks about the other guy's issue, he raises its relevance with the voters.
But if he doesn't address it, he accepts an ever-wider lead for his rival on that question.
Now Bush has begun his campaign by an attack on Kerry using three charges that the Democrat wants to raise taxes, weaken the USA Patriot Act and forswear unilateral action to "defend America," relying instead on the United Nations.
Bush has chosen exactly the right ground for his attacks on Kerry. The tax-increase argument is sound and easy to believe of a Democrat. Kerry's simple denial is not a compelling rebuttal tactic. He needs to explain his tax position in detail to blunt Bush's charges.
But Kerry could still win even if he is perceived as a tax-and-spender. Largely because of the tax cuts, taxation is no longer the life-and-death issue that it had been a decade or two ago.
But Bush is right in attacking his Democratic rival over terrorism. Kerry cannot win if he is seen as weak on terror, and Bush is right to force the issue.
By doing so, he wins either way. If Kerry doesn't answer the charges, he can push him unacceptably to the left on this key issue. If Kerry does answer them, he is falling into Bush's hands and making terror the key question on which the election will turn.
Kerry has chosen to answer only the tax charge thus far in his advertising, leaving the two accusations that relate to terrorism unrebutted. Why has he opted to ignore these attacks? Because the more he talks about terrorism, the Patriot Act and defending America, the more he ratifies terrorism as the key issue in the election.
He'd rather talk about the economy.
For his part, Bush feels obliged to talk about jobs and the economy lest he appear insensitive. And he is careful to leaven good economic news with an awareness of the pain many families still endure. But, in doing so, he raises the salience of the economy as the cutting-edge issue, to Kerry's benefit.
The Madrid bombing, by indicating that al Qaeda is alive and well and still capable of striking, would seem to help Kerry. But it actually benefits Bush because it demonstrates the importance of terrorism as an issue.
I think that Kerry is making a big mistake in not answering Bush's negative ads on the Patriot Act and American unilateralism. He cannot let Bush pad his lead on terrorism, even at the risk of increasing the importance of the issue. Events are too capricious.
While there is not likely to be any sudden economic news to affect the course of the campaign, just long-term trends, it is quite possible that a sudden al Qaeda strike, as has just happened in Madrid, will intervene to focus attention on terrorism.
If Kerry has let Bush type him as soft on terror, he could not survive such an event any more than the ruling center-right party could in Spain.
By throwing the grenade of a soft-on-terror accusation into the Kerry camp, Bush has succeeded in putting the Democrat on the defensive.
If Bush continues to pile it on, accusing Kerry of undermining the CIA, defunding the postwar recovery in Iraq and slashing the defense budget, he could end up making Kerry too liberal on the key issue of terrorism.
Kerry has already shown that he is reluctant to rebut Bush's charges for fear of making terrorism the issue. So Bush should keep piling it on!
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