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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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.