What Kerry Needs to Say

  • Share
  • Read Later
You have to admire one thing about Dick Cheney: He’s unabashedly direct. When the Vice President told Iowa voters last week, “if we make the wrong choice [in this election] then the danger is that we’ll get hit again,” the press gasped and within days Cheney was moderating his remarks. But Cheney was simply saying out loud what Republicans have been arguing subliminally since their convention in New York: President Bush will keep the nation safe, John Kerry cannot be trusted to.

Even more telling than Cheney’s remark however, was the reaction of the Democratic campaign. John Edwards indignantly accused Bush and Cheney of politicizing 9/11, but that was about it. While that may be true, it’s not going to convince one voter that Kerry and Edwards could keep America safer. Kerry has to have a stronger response. It’s not like this is the first time a campaign has accused its opponent of being unsound on national security. Lyndon Johnson’s campaign pulled its controversial “Daisy” ad, which implied Barry Goldwater would lead the nation straight into nuclear war if he won in 1964, but it successfully amplified voters’ worries about Goldwater.

But since the GOP convention, Kerry’s responses to all of Bush’s attacks have been ineffective. The campaign has done little else than lurch in one direction, then turn and lurch in another, not sticking to a message for more than a few days. As Bush has enjoyed his post-convention bounce, Kerry’s staff — which now includes almost every Democratic consultant alive — has been split over strategy. With the President beating Kerry on the issue of national security and the war in Iraq, how should Kerry respond? Should he hit back hard on national security, or fight on the Democrats’ favored turf — the economy, health care and education?

Looking at the latest poll numbers, it’s understandable why some would have Kerry focus on domestic issues. In last week’s TIME poll, voters trusted Bush more to be commander in chief by 20%, and he led Kerry by 23% on who would be better able to handle the war on terrorism. But with the economic recovery still sputtering, jobs not growing in substantial numbers, and health care premiums rising more than $3,000 for the average family in the past four years, Bush is vulnerable on the homefront.

Still, Democrats tried this tactic once before and paid dearly for it. In 2002, when Bush was riding high after victory in Afghanistan, the Democrats campaigned in congressional elections by arguing they supported Bush on foreign policy but opposed him at home. The Democrats took what Texans call an “ass whupping” and lost control of the Senate.

With more than 1,000 American soldiers dead in Iraq, the wars on terrorism and in Iraq color voters’ perceptions of every other issue. Back in April, the economy actually had a solid few months, but voters gave the president no credit for it in the polls, because all eyes were on the escalating bloodshed in Fallujah. Now that Bush has stressed his commander-in-chief credentials for a few weeks, approval of his economic record has risen.

In a time of war, neither party can afford to look soft on national security. In the early days of the Cold War, John F. Kennedy won by promising to be even more aggressive than Eisenhower and Nixon in pushing back Communism. To gain traction this year, Kerry will have to fight back on foreign policy. But he needs a real response; simply saying that Bush mucked things up in Iraq isn’t enough. He has to have his own plan to win the war on terror, one that shows he would fight a smarter and even more aggressive campaign against al-Qaeda, one that shows he would work harder to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of North Korea, Iran and terrorist groups.

While Kerry has lengthy foreign policy proposals, none have captured the public’s imagination. And he won’t do that until he hammers home a smarter-war-on-terror message every day. That may be the only way to effectively take the fight to Bush. Right now, the Kerry campaign appears to be too busy fighting itself.