TCS Daily

A Choice, or an Echo?

By Nick Schulz - October 19, 2004 12:00 AM


We keep hearing how close the election is going to be. As close or closer than 2000, if that's even possible. And with election lawyers for both parties crawling all over Florida, Ohio and other battleground states, both parties assume it will be tight.

But stop for a moment and think about it. That this election may be as close as the last is a stunning fact. How can two elections that have been nothing alike produce such a comparable result? How could two campaign seasons that focused on such radically different issues leave the electorate just as evenly divided?

Sure, there are some similarities between 2000 and 2004. After all, George W. Bush was a vocabulary-challenged candidate in the last election. And he still talks about education accountability and armies of compassion. And in both 2000 and 2004 Bush was running against a slightly wooden, liberal Senator from Massachusetts -- John Kerry, from the Bay State, and Al Gore, from the Avenue in Washington, DC (Gore, who grew up in the Fairfax Hotel, was about as close to his adopted Volunteer State as Kerry was to Cambodia).

What's more, Kerry, like Gore, is a global test-taker: they both want France and Belgium to set America's security policy, Germany and the UK to set energy and environmental policy, Scandinavia to set tax and health care policy and Canada to set American drug prices. Bush's feelings on test-taking -- global or otherwise -- are similar to those he's held since his days at Yale: he hasn't much use for them.

But that's about where the similarities between the election seasons end. In this campaign, foreign policy dominates in a way that domestic politics dominated in 2000. In 2000, the key foreign policy debates concerned an area -- the former Yugoslavia -- most Americans couldn't locate with any precision on a map. In the last three years, Americans have had a crash course -- literally, horrifically -- in global security issues, Islamic radicalism, transnational terror groups and their state sponsors. In 2000 we had soccer moms, today we have security moms.

As such, the George Bush running this time isn't, in fact, the same George Bush that ran last time. The George "No Nation Building" Bush running last time was prompted by events to flip-flop into the George "Let's-Build-Nations-in-Afghanistan-and-Iraq" Bush in '04.

Most polls continue to find that between 40% and 50% of Americans list Iraq and the war on terror as the most important issues in America. Yes, there are problems in Iraq. And, no, Bush did not do well in the foreign policy portions of the debates. But despite these facts, Bush benefits from the average American's concern with foreign policy issues today.

As Ryan Sager pointed out in these pages yesterday, Kerry has seemed to be running for "Thinker in Chief" or "Debater in Chief." Sager astutely notes, "there's a reason the president is called the commander in chief. His job is to project the nation's strength and resolve, not its weakness and doubts."

This also explains why, as Doug Kern argues in a nearby piece today, Bush has nothing to gain by apologizing for any foreign policy failures of his administration, real or perceived; and why Bill Clinton, from his sickbed, called Sen. Kerry several weeks ago and told him to spend more time on domestic issues.

But even if Kerry wanted to focus more on these issues it will be difficult. Voters are intensely aware of foreign affairs again. Moreover, the Bush campaign and its friends won't let him. ABCNews' "The Note" notes that Bush supporters will be pounding security issues until election day. "The conservative Progress for America Voter Fund," the Note reports, "will announce a $12 million buy to broadcast a single ad in key battleground states. It's part of their $15 million final push. PFAVF has been one of the most prolific media 527 of the third quarter and their influence in battleground states has probably been understated."

If Bush defies the odds and manages to blow this election wide open -- the latest Gallup poll had him, surprisingly, up eight points -- it will be primarily due to his relative strengths on security issues. I say "relative" strengths because it's not that Bush hasn't been vulnerable to strong criticism on foreign policy issues. But it would take a candidate who offers, as Barry Goldwater put it, "a choice, not an echo" to help change the underlying political dynamics at work in the country. All those MoveOn-niks and ACT-ion figure Kerry supporters who thought they were making the practical anybody-but-Bush decision -- remember they "dated Dean but married Kerry"? -- may be wondering if they chose the right man in the end. After all, both Bush and Kerry were in favor of using force in Iraq. But Kerry gave voters 87 billion reasons to wonder if he meant it. That's an echo, not a choice.




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