The month of August has seen an escalation in the battle over the character of the presidential nominees. First, Bush and Kerry sparred over the October 2002 vote giving the president power to go to war in Iraq, each questioning the other’s judgment. Next, Republicans unleashed the scurrilous Swift Boat ads that questioned Kerry’s integrity. While these two skirmishes will soon be forgotten, the issue of character will remain paramount until Nov. 2.
To put this in perspective it’s useful to recall the two faces of the 2000 Bush campaign. The positive side featured four policies designed to appeal to the Republican base: cutting taxes to help the economy, bolstering defense, making education accountable, and reducing Federal entitlements—the “faith-based” initiative. The negative face consisted of a relentless attack on the character of Al Gore, where a series of alleged Gore improprieties—for example, that he claimed to have invented the Internet—were contrasted with the Bush promise that he would restore dignity and responsibility to the White House.
In 2004, Bush is running a similar two-faced campaign. Only this time his policy options are restricted, as he can’t emphasize tax cuts, education, or the faith-based initiative because these programs aren’t working. All that Bush has left to work with is the issue of defense, where he is making the dubious claim that Americans are safer because he is president. And once again the dark side of the Bush campaign features an assault on his opponent, a no-holds-barred attack on the character of John Kerry, an effort to sell voters on this simplistic theme: Bush is resolute, while Kerry waffles.
Most Democrats scoff at the assertions that the Bush administration has strengthened America and that he is a strong leader. There seems to be abundant evidence that America has grown weaker under Bush: everyone in the world now seems to hate us, terrorists multiply like bunnies, North Korea continues to threaten nuclear war, etc. Moreover, political insiders characterize Bush as a figurehead president, a weak leader who is easily manipulated by Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, and a small group of neo-conservatives. And, over the past three and a half years, Bush has had his own share of flip-flops: opposing nation-building and then embracing it, opposing the 9/11 commission and then reluctantly endorsing it, to mention just two.
But a slight majority of Americans continue to regard Bush as a strong leader because in managing the president’s image, Rove and the Republican spin masters have added a healthy dose of the political version of magical realism. In addition to their claims that the president is resolute and has strengthened America, they emphasize that he is a Christian and imply that he gets his instructions directly from God. In the minds of many this has created a vivid characterization of Bush as a devout warrior who is leading the nation on a crusade against evil. Undoubtedly this will be the primary theme of the Republican convention—“onward Christian soldier.”
It is against this backdrop of a carefully manipulated Bush image that we should consider the recent skirmishes, which were responses to successful Kerry assaults on Bush’s character. Kerry left the Democratic convention having planted a seed of doubt in the mind of many voters about Bush’s leadership. Polls showed Kerry and Bush in a virtual tie on the issue of “strong leader” and “who is best able to lead the war on terrorism.”
The Bush campaign saw this as a major setback for their candidate and responded with two thrusts. On Friday, Aug. 6, Bush challenged Kerry to say whether he would have supported going to war with Iraq if he had known “what we know now.” Bush then misquoted Kerry’s response and used it an example of Kerry’s alleged flip-flopping.
But Kerry actually used Bush’s taunt as an occasion to attack the character of the president, albeit not effectively. Kerry began by correctly characterizing the resolution that he voted on in the fall of 2002; it wasn’t a vote on whether to invade Iraq but rather whether the president should be given the authority to invade if all other measures failed. Kerry explained that he voted to give Bush war power believing that the office of the president needed this in order to protect the nation. Kerry emphasized that the mistake was not that Congress granted Bush war power, but what Bush did with this power. Kerry asserted that the president made three critical errors of judgment: he failed to scrutinize the pre-war intelligence and invaded based upon wildly inaccurate information; he failed to build a real coalition and therefore the United States was left with the burden of the war and occupation; and he failed to provide an exit plan, a strategy to insure that the war in Iraq reached a quick and satisfactory conclusion.
A few days later the Bush campaign counterattacked by launching the Swift Boat ad campaign, where Vietnam vets accused Kerry of lying about the incidents that led to his medals and demeaning veterans by his famous 1971 Senate testimony. The Kerry campaign responded that Bush was resorting to the same smear tactics he had used against first, John McCain, and then, Al Gore, four years ago; this time, they were able to link the ad campaign to Bush campaign insiders. Kerry, in effect, accused Bush of cowardice, of hiding behind his campaign staff while supporting the ads.
Polls indicate that Kerry has been damaged by these two assaults, but the election remains very close. The big problem that the Bush campaign faces, over the next two months, is that it has only this one issue, and there are inherent problems running solely on character. Unlike 2000, when Al Gore was unable to defend himself from personal attacks, John Kerry appears to be able to do this. Four years ago, the press gave Bush a free ride; reporters accepted his claims that he was a person of strong moral character. Now the press is willing to question his character by, for example, examining Bush’s questionable military service and investigating his links to smear campaigns.
And, of course, most voters want an exchange of ideas, not insults; they want to hear what each candidate proposes as a strategy for America’s future. Kerry has expressed such a plan but Bush has not. The Kerry campaign is beginning to make a damming comparison: Bush went into Iraq without a plan, and now he is campaigning for reelection without a plan. To exploit this weakness and win the battle over character, Kerry needs to make clear that he has a plan for America, and the strength of character to execute it. He must demonstrate that he provides Americans with a clear exit strategy from the Bush administration.
Berkeley resident Bob Burnett is working on a book about the Christian Right.›