Come Out Swinging

It's early in the contest, but Kerry and Bush are fighting hard.

Wed Mar. 10, 2004 3:00 AM EST

Just a week after John Kerry effectively locked up the Democratic nomination, the Kerry and Bush camps are going at each other with a vengeance. Each man wants to define the other in the public mind -- and to make that definition stick.

Kerry has been hammering away at Bush for months now. (Bush-baiting is the surest way to fire up the Democratic base.) Bush mostly held off. No longer.

As Dana Milbank points out in the Washington Post, it’s pretty rare for an incumbent president to be in attack-mode this early. Other presidents -- Bush’s father, Clinton, Reagan -- pretty much ignored their opponents until much later in the campaign.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Bush is rattled -- with good reason. A recent Washington Post and ABC News poll has Kerry running at 48 percent, with Bush trailing at 44.

Democrats are thrilled that Bush has already taken the bait -- to their mind a big political mistake. Better to have set his own campaign agenda and appear above the fray.

Joe Lockhart, former press secretary to Bill Clinton, says:

"They have squandered the power of the incumbency by focusing on retorts to Democratic thrusts. . . An incumbent should try to ignore his opponent and set the agenda, engaging his opponent only if he has to."

The White House has already hit back at Democratic attacks on Bush’s guard service, the state of the economy, jobs, and Bush’s use of 9/11 imagery in his campaign ads.

But they've also gone after Kerry. Bush's re-election website prominently features headlines like "John Kerry: Unprincipled" and "Sen. Kerry Flip-Flops on Israel" and "Kerry Voted Against Funds for Troops". As the Christian Science Monitor notes, the Bush campaign wants to tag Kerry as a "pro-tax, anti-defense-spending liberal with a tendency to waffle on issues."

At a lunch last week in California, Bush said, "Senator Kerry has been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue." The message the Bush campaign is attempting to drive home here is that Kerry is a "flip-flopper," as well as soft on defense and intelligence spending. His long record as a senator has given Republicans a lot to work with. Bush says:

"Sen. Kerry voted for the Patriot Act, for NAFTA, for the No Child Left Behind Act and for the use of force in Iraq. Now he opposes the Patriot Act, NAFTA, the No Child Left Behind Act and the liberation of Iraq. My opponent clearly has strong beliefs — they just don't last very long."

But Kerry's much-derided agonizing has an upside, says Howard Kurtz, who weighs both sides of the issue ... of weighing both sides of an issue:

"I've been giving some deep philosophical thought to this whole 'flip-flop' business, which seems to be the FCC-approved F-word of the presidential campaign, at least this week. Can it really be that both candidates are spineless tacticians who change their positions at the slightest provocation, just to vacuum up votes? Or is that just typical campaign rhetoric? Is changing your mind in politics really such an awful thing? Do we really want our politicians to be so cautious about future attacks that they're afraid to explore new ideas or think out loud? After all, if you stick to the same old stale talking points, you can never be accused of flipping. Or flopping. At the same time, if presidential aspirants don't have a cohesive approach over the years to fundamental matters of war and peace and the economy--or at least a logical progression--that raises some serious concerns."

To be sure, Kerry answers every attack that comes his way with an attack of his own. For instance, the Kerry campaign recently awarded Bush the "Herbert Hoover Award" for presiding over the worst record on jobs of any president since Hoover. Kerry is also trying to make stick the charge of "unsteady leadership," saying, correctly, that under Bush the U.S. is increasingly unpopular internationally. He has let it be known that some foreign leaders have confided that they hope he, Kerry, wins the election.

Kerry is trying to tar Bush with a different kind of flip-flopping, saying the he's "the biggest say-one-thing, do-another" president ever. In particular, Kerry accused Bush of avoiding accountability for his administration's intelligence record by stonewalling the commission investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. "If the president of the United States can find the time to go to a rodeo, he can find the time to do more than one hour in front of a commission that is investigating what happened to America's intelligence and why we are not stronger today," Kerry said.

But Slate's William Saletan thinks that Kerry's tactic of attacking Bush on his honesty and consistency won't work. He writes:

"In the Democratic primaries, this accusation [that Bush is a liar] worked for Kerry, because liberals think Bush is a liar. But most voters don't, for a good reason: It isn't true. If Kerry makes the election a referendum on Bush's honesty, Bush will win."

Saletan thinks Kerry’s campaign slugs should sound more like this:

"The problem Bush has demonstrated in office is that he has no idea how to apply his principles in a changing world. He's a big-picture guy who can't do the job. From foreign to economic to social policy, Bush's record is a lesson in the limits and perils of conviction. He's too confident to consult a map. He's too strong to heed warnings and too steady to turn the wheel when the road bends. He's too certain to admit error, even after plowing through ditches and telephone poles. He's too preoccupied with principle to understand that principle isn't enough. Watching the stars instead of the road, he has wrecked the budget and the war on terror. Now he's heading for the Constitution. It's time to pull him over and take away the keys.

President Bush. Strength and confidence. Steady leadership in times of change. He knows exactly where he wants to lead this country. And he won't let facts, circumstances, or the Constitution get in his way."

The big risk for a candidate in going negative, of course, is that people will be turned off by you as well as your opponent. A Gallup poll asked whether Bush and the GOP have attacked John Kerry unfairly. Twenty-one percent said yes. When they asked the same question about Kerry and the Democratic party, thirty-five percent said yes, they have attacked Bush unfairly. The numbers suggest that voters don’t like Kerry’s hits on Bush.

But as Calpundit, a blogger, writes, "the poll was conducted March 5-7. So even after months of brutal primary campaigning and endless debating, only 35% of voters think Kerry has been unfair. But before Bush had even started to campaign, already 21% of voters thought he'd been unfair to Kerry."

Still, Kerry's big challenge is to define himself positively even as he sticks it to Bush. Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist from Georgia tells the Christian Science Monitor:

"Kerry first has to make the case that the president should not be rehired, but he also has to make the case that he's an acceptable alternative. And that means he's got to do more than pound on the president."