Convention, Kerry Help Bush Open Wider ‘Stature Gap’

Posted September 3, 2004 at 5:53pm

Is this a wartime election in which America’s future hangs in the balance? Or is it a more typical contest decided by taxes, jobs and health insurance? President Bush probably wins the first. Democrat John Kerry wants the second. [IMGCAP(1)]

Bush and other key speakers at the Republican convention last week cast the election in historic, even epic, terms. Kerry’s first response was about domestic policy and personal pique.

The outcome of the election depends at least partly on whether a majority of voters think the whole world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, or whether life and politics can go on more or less as usual.

It also may depend on the public’s perception of the candidates’ stature. In my view, Kerry did himself no good by responding to Bush’s soaring acceptance speech with a low poke at Vice President Cheney’s history of draft deferments.

Bush’s speech certainly didn’t avoid domestic issues. In fact, Bush presented a rather challenging new vision based on expanding individual empowerment rather than traditional government activism.

But the details and delivery of the first, domestic half of the speech were sketchy and prosaic. The second half, concerning the contest between freedom and terror, was passionate and poetic.

“The freedom of many, and the future security of our nation, now depend on us,” he said. “And tonight, my fellow Americans, I ask you to stand with me.”

Bush is relying on the electorate to trust and follow him in dangerous territory. Republicans also spent considerable time trying to demonstrate that Kerry couldn’t be trusted to lead.

Cheney said that “the election of 2004 is one of the most important, not just in our lives, but in our history,” and he charged that “time and again Sen. Kerry has made the wrong call on national security.”

“A Senator,” Cheney said, “can be wrong for 20 years without consequence to the nation. But a president … always casts the decisive vote. And in a time of challenge, America needs — and had — a president we can count on to get it right.”

Similarly, if sulfurously, Democratic Sen. Zell Miller (Ga.) said that “this election will change forever the course of history” and “for more than 20 years, on every one of the issues of freedom and security, John Kerry has been more wrong, more weak and more wobbly than any other national figure.”

Miller’s citations were a mélange of accurate accounts of Kerry’s record — such as his vote against the 1991 Gulf War — combined with exaggerations of his opposition to various weapons systems and outright descents into demagoguery.

Miller portrayed Democrats’ legitimate questioning of Bush’s Iraq war as making the country weaker, and he falsely implied that “Democratic leaders” have defamed American soldiers from World War II to the present as “occupiers rather than liberators.”

Kerry, instead of responding to Bush’s vision of the future, immediately chose to counter-attack against his critics — and went almost as low-road against Cheney as Miller did against him.

“The vice president even called me unfit for office last night,” Kerry said. “I guess I’ll leave it up to the voters to decide whether five (draft) deferments make someone more qualified to defend this nation than two tours of duty” in Vietnam.

Kerry alleged for the umpteenth time that Republicans had “attacked my patriotism” — they didn’t — and declared “I’m not going to have my commitment to defend this country questioned by those who refused to serve when they could have and by those who misled the nation into Iraq.”

To the extent that the public paid attention to Kerry’s midnight speech in Springfield, Ohio, I don’t think he helped convince voters that he has stature equal to Bush’s.

It’s a gap that was opening even before the GOP convention. Polls undoubtedly will show that it widened there.

The pre-convention Battleground Survey showed Bush favored over Kerry as a “strong leader” by 53 percent to 41 percent, as someone who “says what he believes” by 53 percent to 40 percent and as a “steady and consistent leader” by 54 percent to 40 percent.

Since the Democratic convention, Bush also opened wide leads on “dealing with Iraq” (53-41) and “safeguarding the U.S. from terrorism” (54-37).

Kerry was favored, by 48-42, as the candidate who “cares about people like me,” as the one who “will lead in the right direction,” (50-46) and who will focus on such issues as creating jobs (51-40) and strengthening Social Security (51-37).

Bush obviously was trying to catch up on the domestic side by showing that he does care for workers facing the challenges of multiple lifetime job changes and intense international competition.

But it remains to be seen whether he can convince voters before the election to support novel reforms like personal savings accounts for health care.

When I asked a top Kerry aide whether he views this as one of America’s most historic elections, he said he didn’t — that it was like a lot of others. Moreover, polls indicate that domestic issues run about even in voter concerns with Iraq and terrorism. The deciding vote may be cast by events — either the candidates’ performance in debate or an attempt by Osama bin Laden to influence the outcome.