Jewish World Review July 2, 2004 / 13 Tamuz, 5764
Breaking the tie
Virtually every poll shows a dead heat between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry; the tie has persisted ever since early May, when Iraq let the Democrat back into the race. Some polls suggest Bush has recovered in the past month; others, that he's still slipping. Either way, the two campaigns are locked in mortal combat and each has to be looking for a way to break the tie.
Yet beneath it all lies a deep consensus that spans the parties and both genders.
Voters overwhelmingly believe that Bush would be the better president to wage the War on Terror. In the Fox News survey, voters said that Bush would be better than Kerry at "protecting the U.S. from terror attacks" by 49 percent to 28 percent. (Women said Bush was better by 46-27; men, by 54-30.)
But voters also have more faith in Kerry to deal with a host of domestic issues. Despite the relatively positive economic news of recent months, voters give Kerry an edge of 10 to 30 percentage points on creating jobs, lowering health care costs, protecting Social Security and helping the environment. Even on education, a signature Bush initiative, Kerry has a double digit lead.
The economy still works to Kerry's advantage. His edge shrinks with each good job-creation report but the lag time in popular perceptions is huge: A plurality of voters still believe we're in a recession, two years after it ended.
This election will hinge on what Americans want in a president. It's not so much a contest between two candidates, ideologies or even parties as it is a clash between two different issues or priorities for the voters.
In this respect, it parallels the 1945 election in the United Kingdom, when voters had a choice of Winston Churchill to lead the nation in war or Labor's Clement Atlee to lead it in peace. With Germany defeated but Japan still holding out, the war was still a real concern, but voters opted for Labor's social-welfare focus.
If terror is dominating the headlines in November, Bush will probably win. If not, he'll likely lose. Events, more than campaigning, are likely to determine the outcome.
This strategic conundrum poses difficult questions for both campaigns.
Bush has to hope for neither too much success nor too much failure in his efforts to eradicate terror, pacify Iraq and curb the ambitions of North Korea and Iran. Too much success would erode the importance of these issues and let domestic questions come to the fore, to Kerry's advantage. Too much failure would besmirch his ratings on fighting terror and could cripple his key advantage, as April's outbreak of violence in Iraq hobbled him in the spring.
Kerry has to hope Bush will succeed so well in fighting terrorism that it disappears as an issue. Only if voters feel genuinely safe will they be willing to reject the man who brought them safety and take a chance on a man they don't entirely trust on the issue.
Should another terrorist attack hit our shores, Americans will likely react the opposite from their Spanish counterparts we'll rally around the president both as an act of patriotism and as a recognition that his skills at fighting terror are still needed.
In each camp, there is likely a division, with some urging the candidate to speak out on the other side's issues and decrease Bush's lead on terror or Kerry's edge on domestic issues. They are basically wrong: Each candidate must use his face time to sell the salience of his issue. Talking about the other side's issues will just increase their importance. The strategy President Bill Clinton used in 1996 to neutralize the GOP lead on issues like welfare, the balanced budget and crime won't work: What matters most now is which issue is more important: terror or domestic policy.
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JWR contributor Dick Morris is the author of, most recently, "Rewriting History", a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History. (ClickHERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.) Comment by clicking here.
© 2004, Dick Morris