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.
Kerry's inconsistency on Iraq is his greatest liability, not just because he's taken incompatible positions, but because he's trifled with a serious national security issue. He voted against the Gulf War in 1991, for the Iraq war resolution in 2002, and then against $87 billion to fund the Iraq effort. The only coherent explanation for these votes is political expediency. He voted each time for what would advance his political career as a Democrat. When those votes began to sour, he changed his tune. Once the war to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait became a popular success, he said he had backed it all along. This year when Democratic elites turned against the war, Kerry suddenly adopted an antiwar position, explaining his vote for the war resolution as merely a vote to "threaten" Iraq, not invade.
Bush should have no trouble scoring off Kerry on issue after issue. Politics, however, is a strange business. You never know what will stick. The charge that Bush shirked National Guard duty in Alabama in 1972 and 1973 didn't catch on in the 2000 campaign, but now it has touched off a press feeding frenzy. So maybe even sly and humorous TV ads won't persuade voters of Kerry's shortcomings. Perhaps a more blunt approach will work. Perhaps not.
Bush has one thing, and probably two, to fall back on. The first is the economy. There's every reason to expect growth of 4.5 percent to 5 percent in 2004. But will it be a jobless recovery? Not likely. The Bush economic team projects 2.6 million new jobs this year, wiping out the losses of earlier years. The Federal Reserve figures on 1.5 million to 2 million. The Blue Chip Forecast of top economists pegs job growth at 2 million. They all may be lowballing. In the 1990s, a year with 4 million new jobs was followed by a year in which 3.5 million were created. Several quarters posted job gains of one million. In any case, no president seeking reelection--and unchallenged for his party's nomination--has lost with an economy like this.
There's always Iraq, where everything depends on the turnover of sovereignty on July 1. If it goes well--which means neither civil war nor anarchy--the Iraq issue will remain a positive for the president. If the immediate result in sovereign Iraq is mixed, Bush may still claim success. The recently intercepted memo from terrorist leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi suggests anti-American diehards are rapidly losing heart.
Nothing is more pathetic in the Washington political community these days than tremulous Republicans and conservatives who whine about how Bush may lose to Kerry. Well, he might, but don't bet on it. A simple rule is worth recalling: In politics, the future is never a straight-line projection of the present. The media may think polls showing Kerry ahead of Bush in February are predictive of what will happen on November 2, but that's foolishness. The primaries will end in a few weeks and the Kerry phase of the campaign will fade. Unless Bush stumbles badly, the next phase will be his.
Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.