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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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.