The Magazine

Bush vs. Kerry

From the February 9, 2004 issue: It will be more interesting than you think.

Feb 9, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 21 • By FRANK CANNON and JEFFREY BELL
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THE COME-FROM-BEHIND triumph of John Kerry in Iowa and New Hampshire does more than make the Massachusetts senator a prohibitive favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination. It marks the defeat of Howard Dean's antiwar, left-populist rebellion by the quintessential candidate of the Democratic establishment.

For Democrats, this is likely to mean a sophisticated, predictable, low-risk national campaign, somewhat analogous to Bob Dole's 1996 challenge of President Clinton. A Kerry nomination is precisely the kind of result aimed for by Democratic chairman Terry McAuliffe in his drive to front-load the primaries, assuring an early nominee who will have plenty of time to unify the party. In a bonus for McAuliffe, the prospective nominee opted out of his federal matching-funds subsidy, exempting him from the anachronistically low fundraising limits assigned to nomination fights. The Kerry campaign is free to spend as much as it can raise between now and the party convention.

For President Bush and his political team, the strategic landscape has become far simpler. Fallen by the wayside are such divergent scenarios as a centrist New Democrat trying to pick off a few of the red states, an anti-political man on horseback, an Old Left protectionist appeal to the agricultural and industrial heartland, and (within a very short time, we believe) a '60s-style challenge to America's role in the world.

Instead there will be an adroit, cautious, experienced nominee whose method of uniting his party will be to incorporate, at least rhetorically, some elements of all these Democratic strains, keeping open as many tactical options as possible. What most infuriates Howard Dean about John Kerry is the latter's tendency to alternate between the two possible answers to such seemingly binary questions as President Bush's invasion of Iraq. Dean, like Kerry's other opponents, has watched helplessly as the front-runner alternately takes hawkish and dovish stances, depending on the headlines of the week.

A Bush strategy keyed on labeling Kerry an extreme liberal will be far from easy. Many voters are more apt to see the sonorous Kerry as a judicious moderate than as a wild-eyed liberal adept at wearing a moderate's mask. Kerry will often pay lip service to the idea of the election as a stark issues referendum, but in practice he can be expected to resist or try to finesse most of the president's attempts to define the content of such a choice.

This is why the Kerry candidacy represents, at least potentially, a successful Democratic riposte to the Bush team's effort to achieve a Republican realignment. In an article in these pages just after the 2002 elections ("The Beginning of the Bush Epoch?" Dec. 9, 2002), we noted that such a realignment is historically implausible because of the tendency of popular post-World War II presidents seeking a second election victory to take few risks once they have opened up a lead over their challengers. This accounts for the phenomenon of "lonely landslides"--few if any down-ticket coattails--for such decisive second victories as Eisenhower (1956), Nixon (1972), Reagan (1984), and Clinton (1996).

On the other side of the ledger, though, were two elements thrown into high relief by the historic GOP gains in the 2002 elections. First was the unusual willingness of George W. Bush to risk his political standing by intervening on behalf of weaker Republican candidates down the ballot. This underpinning of realignment has if anything deepened since 2002. To a degree unique for a sitting president heading into his last campaign, Bush and his political aides have intertwined their formidable organizing efforts with those of state parties and contested candidacies all over the country, even in states not in play in the Electoral College.

The second factor favoring realignment, we argued, was the syndrome of "Bush hatred"--the tendency of prominent Democrats to take their various disagreements with the president to a level of implacability that made them look hysterical, while Bush came across as something of a mild-mannered innocent victim. This set the stage for Bush's outmaneuvering of then Majority Leader Tom Daschle in the 2002 Senate elections on such issues as homeland security.

This is where the Democrats seem less likely to repeat their mistakes of Bush's first two years. Their minority leaders in Congress, in part because they are minority leaders, loomed less large as obstructionists in 2003 than they did the year before. And while loathing of Bush has far from disappeared in the Democratic presidential race, Kerry's gaining of the upper hand is likely to put intelligent limits on Bush hatred in the presidential campaign from now on. As an obvious example, Kerry would never make Dean's blunder of seeming to begrudge the success of U.S. forces in the capture of Saddam Hussein. So assuming Kerry and other prominent Democrats manage to avoid such lapses, they may be positioned to reap the benefits of anti-Bush polarization without the disadvantages.

The strategic challenge Bush now faces can be traced back to one of his greatest strengths as a candidate: his ability to get himself underestimated by Democratic opponents. There have been two pivotal races in Bush's career where he was running even or slightly behind his Democratic opponent heading into candidate debates: his 1994 challenge of Texas governor Ann Richards and the 2000 race against Vice President Al Gore. In both instances, Bush "won" these debates, took the lead in polls, and went on to victory in November.

Richards and Gore have the following things in common: Compared with Bush, they were far more experienced candidates, they were considered superb debaters, they were widely favored among political elites of both parties to out-debate Bush, and when the opposite occurred they were thrown badly off stride. Unlike Richards, candidate Gore made a recovery and nearly won the 2000 election. But even today, one wonders whether Gore has fully recovered from the shock of losing his debates with Bush.

How did Bush gain the upper hand against these opponents? (1) He treated his opponents with great respect, even in the face of hostility--in Gore's case, repeated and audible sighing at Bush's answers; in Richards's case, suggesting that Bush was a political novice and business failure who really didn't belong on the same stage with her. (2) He turned the debate, whenever possible, to a very few themes consistent with the campaign's issue strategy. (3) He remained calm and moderate, even when his opponent was behaving oddly (e.g., Gore's roaming the debate stage in a manner that suggested the demeanor of a stalker).

This strategy worked superbly in 1994 and 2000 in part because neither Richards nor Gore, nor their political teams, really knew very much about Bush. For a number of reasons--most particularly the feeling among Democrats that Bush had not really won the 2000 election and therefore deserved little respect--Bush continued to be underestimated by congressional Democrats in 2001 and 2002. Because of the mismatch between Democratic attacks and Bush's mild, moderate, "innocent victim" demeanor, observers in the middle instinctively sided with Bush.

By now, Democratic elites are less often fooled. They've been victims of Bush's mousetraps too often for that. And unlike Howard Dean, John Kerry will not walk into easy traps.

Moreover, the president has gotten into a habit of taking conservative positions, but using arguments that appeal far more to moderates than to conservatives to support the positions. When Senate Democrats filibuster Bush's conservative nominees to the federal judiciary, they do so because they favor a continued liberal majority on the Supreme Court concerning such issues as abortion and gay rights. They are quite open about this, and as a result the liberal base is highly mobilized.

Bush repeatedly attacks the Democrats for the filibusters, but seldom if ever mentions the issues actually at stake. Presumably in order to appeal to moderate or undecided voters, he implies that Senate Democrats oppose the advancement of Latinos or women, which voters find difficult to believe. So the filibusters continue, and the conservative base is not only not mobilized, but appears somewhat demoralized.

The other problem is with those voters in the middle to whom Bush and his political team often seem to be gearing their appeal. More and more voters sense there is a cultural divide in the country, and that Bush is on one side and most Democratic elites, including John Kerry, are on the other. This sense of a cultural divide, already evident in the demographics of the 2000 election, has been accentuated by the course of the debate on the war on terrorism, and the invasion of Iraq in particular.

Bush made several distinct arguments for the invasion of Iraq. His unsuccessful attempt to win the backing of the United Nations caused him to give greater emphasis to Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction than would otherwise have been the case. Now that David Kay has concluded the weapons were probably nonexistent by the time of the invasion, it no longer serves much purpose to downplay the moral arguments--the Reaganite arguments--of fighting terrorism not just by destroying weapons, but by replacing terrorist ideas with American democratic values throughout the Middle East and in the larger Islamic world. This includes by necessity the possibility of preemption and regime change. In fact it is these arguments that have the best chance of stimulating and activating the conservative base.

If Howard Dean were heading toward the nomination, Bush might still have had a significant shot at appealing to those voters in the middle. Even voters on the Democratic side of the cultural divide would have considered voting for Bush if they had feared the Democratic candidate was not just liberal, but flaky and unpredictable.

With John Kerry heading for the nomination, that is far less likely. Even Kerry's dullness works to his advantage by making him look thoughtful and competent. A Bush-Kerry matchup can be thought of as shrinking the middle almost to the disappearing point.

In a Bush vs. Kerry race, then, Bush gains nothing from withholding support for a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Democrats greatly fear this issue, which is why they feel compelled to state their own belief in heterosexual marriage. On the other hand, Bush doesn't want to say anything that implies intolerance of gays, nor should he. But unless there is a programmatic difference between the two parties--namely, support or non-support for a constitutional amendment prohibiting courts from decreeing gay marriage or its equivalent as a constitutional right--Kerry has a good chance of taking the marriage issue completely off the table, even though he is from Massachusetts and voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996.

On the economy, Bush is correct to focus on the future-oriented issue of tax policy. The howls that went up among Democrats when in the State of the Union speech Bush defined the Democratic position as one of future tax increases--including bringing back the hated death tax--show he is in a strong position. Democrats should get used to the idea that they will be described--correctly--as favoring huge tax increases unless they vote to make the 2001-2003 Bush tax cuts permanent.

Saying there are few remaining votes in the middle is not the same thing as saying that we will see a 50-50 election. There is a good chance that Bush's increased use of conservative explanations of conservative positions will do more than stimulate the center-right political base. It might actually win a few votes over to Bush's side of the cultural divide.

Even more likely, it will gain the attention of voters in states like Pennsylvania and Michigan who are already on Bush's side of the cultural war, but had never thought of themselves that way.

The rise of John Kerry, a competent liberal Democrat, means voting alignments will be more purely ideological, not less. In all likelihood, this election will see the culture war become concrete and unavoidable. In that kind of Bush-Kerry debate, the vision of a Bush realignment may well become a reality.

Jeffrey Bell and Frank Cannon are principals of Capital City Partners, a Washington consulting firm.