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.