The Magazine

Kerry Nation?

From the February 23, 2004, issue: Don't bet on it.

Feb 23, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 23 • By FRED BARNES
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REMEMBER THE BEAR in the woods? It was featured in the most devastating of President Reagan's TV ads in the 1984 presidential race. An angry, menacing bear was shown prowling through a forest. "There's a bear in the woods," the narrator said. "For some people the bear is easy to see. Others don't see it at all. Some people say the bear is tame. Others say it's vicious and dangerous. Since no one can really be sure who's right, isn't it smart to be as strong as the bear--if there is a bear?" Then a man with a gun appears and the bear takes a step back. The final words on the screen: "President Reagan, prepared for peace."

The ad never mentioned the Soviets, the Cold War, the Red Army, Communists, or Reagan's Democratic opponent, Walter Mondale. It didn't need to. It was clever and amusing, but it made a point. Reagan would pursue peace through strength. His opponent might not see the threat to the United States posed by the bear, the symbol of the Soviet Union. But why should voters take a chance? They didn't. Reagan won reelection overwhelmingly.

I cite the bear in the woods ad as an example of how President Bush's reelection campaign can go after his likely Democratic rival, John Kerry. The key is not to scream, "Liberal, liberal, liberal." That rarely works anymore. What should work, though, is a TV spot with wit and subtlety that plays up a Kerry weakness. Take Kerry's insistence that the terrorist threat to this country is "an exaggeration." A droll but pointed anti-Kerry ad along the lines of the bear in the woods practically writes itself. Other ads do too, notably ones with clips from the fevered, over-the-top attacks on Bush by Al Gore ("betrayed the country"), Wesley Clark ("not patriotic"), and Howard Dean ("the enemy").

But if Kerry is a target-rich environment, why are Republicans and conservatives despairing over Bush's chances of defeating him? The answer is they've succumbed to panic. Sure, Bush has had a bad month. His State of the Union address was flat. The failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (yet) is embarrassing. The National Guard flap is a distraction. The deficit is nothing to brag about. And Kerry has emerged from nowhere as a formidable foe who looks all the better because he's not Howard Dean.

Presidential campaigns unfold in phases and this is the Kerry phase. The storyline for the moment is: Kerry wins. Every week, sometimes twice a week, he beats his Democratic rivals. John Edwards, Wesley Clark, and Dean serve as the patsy Washington Generals who lose every game to Kerry's Harlem Globetrotters. This produces a stream of favorable stories about Kerry. Indeed, the Kerry phase may last through Super Tuesday on March 2, and there's nothing the president or his campaign team can do about it. Their time will come soon enough.

For Bush operatives, the problem with Kerry is where to begin. National security? Gay marriage? Flip-flops? Special interests? Beginning with national security makes the most sense since it's Kerry's weakest issue. It's the one he least wants to discuss. All that bravado about "bring it on" if Bush wants to raise national security actually means "don't bring it on." By talking tough, Kerry hopes to scare Bush off. The emphasis on Kerry's heroism as a young naval officer is designed to inoculate him on national security. It shouldn't. He's voted against practically every weapon the military relies on, and he's made a strong bid to slash intelligence funding. Cutting the CIA budget may have looked safe in the 1990s, but post-9/11 it doesn't.

The Bush campaign is inclined to ding Kerry as a phony because he's been on both sides of so many issues. This, by the way, makes it difficult to tag him as an unswerving liberal. While he favors higher taxes, he voted in 1986 to cut the top rate on individual income to 28 percent. Bush's tax cuts brought the top rate down to only 35 percent. But playing both sides of an issue could hurt Kerry on gay marriage. He opposes gay marriage but isn't for a constitutional amendment to bar it. He says states should decide the matter, but he voted against the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996 that allows states to do just that. Trying to reconcile these conflicts may tie Kerry in knots.