No, you’re not.

Yes, you are.

No, you’re not.

At last, the 2004 campaign is getting down to the essentials. At the GOP convention, George W. Bush declared he was so strong and so committed to the defense of the United States that he even launched a war that most Americans now believe was a mistake. And Kerry, after much pondering, struck back this week. At a speech at New York University, he exclaimed, “The president misled, miscalculated and mismanaged every aspect of this undertaking, and he has made the achievement of our objective — a stable Iraq, secure within its borders, with a representative government — harder to achieve.” Kerry added, “Let me put it plainly: The president’s policy in Iraq has not strengthened our national security. It has weakened it.”

Kerry is not quite operating on the same psychological terrain as Bush. During the convention, the Bush campaign message literally was: Vote for Bush, or you and your family are going to get it. (That is exactly what Senator Zell Miller, the Democrat turned fearmonger, said.) Afterward, Dick Cheney said that a win for Kerry would lead to another terrorist attack on the United States. And at a fund-raiser in Illinois, House Speaker Denny Hastert said that he believed al Qaeda would mount a strike to swing the election against Bush and for Kerry. “I don’t have data or intelligence to tell me one thing or another,” he said in a comforting acknowledgment of his lack of information. But he added, “I think [al Qaeda] would be more apt to go [for] somebody who would file a lawsuit with the World Court or something rather than respond with troops.” When a reporter asked Hastert if al Qaeda would operate more easily with Kerry as president, he said, “That’s my opinion.” Nothing subtle there.

Kerry doesn’t quite push the same buttons. His NYU speech was a blistering critique of Bush. He whacked Bush for launching a war that was unnecessary, and he hurled scorn at Bush for saying he would do it all over again, even after learning there were no WMDs in Iraq. But Kerry does not follow Bush’s lead and state that if you vote for the other guy, you, your loved ones and the rest of the world will be in direct danger. It certainly is implied — strongly. But he’s not as visceral as George “the W stands for Swagger” Bush.

As Kerry becomes more confrontational, he cannot escape the fundamental difference between the campaigns, which reflect the difference between the candidates. Bush has struck a defiant I-kick-butt stance. Kerry replies, Kicking butt is fine and useful, as long as you kick the right butt, the right way, at the right time. Otherwise, kicking butt could actually create more problems for all of us. It’s a face-off between two opposing modes of engaging the world. On one side is action-over-analysis; on the other is, well, analysis-before-action. This is more than a red-blue divide.

If the election does stay focused on the war in Iraq (or, as some errantly call it, the war on terrorism), the contest will determine the nature of the American character — that is, the character of a majority of the slice of the population that bothers to vote. (I am hoping that this time whoever becomes president collects the most votes.) It’s tough guy versus smart guy. And it doesn’t matter that three decades ago Bush wimped out of Vietnam and that Kerry volunteered for service. (Why was the Democratic National Committee pushing the Texas Air National Guard story on the day Kerry walloped Bush on Iraq? As Kerry was delivering his speech, party chief Terry McAuliffe was holding a misguided conference call to encourage reporters to write about Bush’s MIA Guard days.) A few months ago, Bill Clinton observed that strong-but-wrong beats weak-but-right. By challenging Bush so clearly on the war in Iraq, Kerry may be turning his boat right into the enemy. But he still is going to have to convey strength in some fashion.

Bushistas believe Kerry cannot do so. One senior Bush aide said to Newsweek, “Good. We’re glad he’s talking about Iraq” because the issue “remains Exhibit A in the flip-flopping case.” The Bushies appear confident they can keep Kerry — whose unartful comments about his position on the war have required far too much explanation — boxed in. And that’s particularly easy for Bush to do when he is not encumbered by the facts.


THE DAY KERRY relaunched his assault on Bush and the war, Bush responded, as his campaign often does, with strategic derision. Kerry, Bush said, “apparently woke up this morning and has now decided, no, we should not have invaded Iraq, after just last month saying he still would have voted for force, even knowing everything we know today.” But this was not a flip-flop for Kerry. He had voted in 2002 to give Bush the authority to launch a war against Saddam Hussein, saying he hoped Bush would use this authority as leverage in pushing for new inspections in Iraq. There is nothing inconsistent in charging, as Kerry has, that Bush misused that authority and went to war too soon — before the inspections process was done, before a truly multilateral coalition was assembled, before adequate preparations were made for the post-invasion period.

And when Bush and his aides aren’t goofing on Kerry — one campaign mouthpiece, Jennifer Millerwise, recently said that the hardest problem for the Bush’s debate-prep team was figuring out Kerry’s position on Iraq — they are pushing simplistic misrepresentations. Kerry, Bush declared, “now believes our national security would be stronger with Saddam Hussein in power, not in prison.” No, Kerry, like many terrorism and military experts, believes that the terrorist threat from Iraq is now much graver than it was pre-invasion. This week about three dozen cities in Iraq are beyond government (and U.S. military) control. All of these areas are possible havens for anti-American terrorists who had no such refuge in Iraq before the war.

Bush is right. The war in Iraq is indeed the central front in the war on terrorism, but only because his invasion has made it so. (Bush is unimpeded by reality on the campaign trail. He claims Kerry’s health-care plan is a government “takeover” of the medical establishment that would yank control from patients and doctors. Kerry’s proposal — basically tax cuts for businesses that provide catastrophic health-care insurance to their workers — is no such thing. And lately Bush has been talking up his plan to allow younger workers to invest some Social Security funds in their own accounts without mentioning that the 10-year cost of this plan is $2 trillion.)

Kerry is right to zero in on Bush and the war. Jobs, health care, abortion rights, the environment — all of that is important. But if Bush can persuade voters he’s keeping them safe so they can continue to fret about these and other matters, he’ll likely win. And while some Dems have argued that Kerry needs to shift the discussion toward domestic concerns, that probably cannot be done. Sorry, an incumbent president usually has more power to shape an election than the challenger. For Kerry to win, he will have to beat Bush on Bush’s own terms. He finally seems to fully recognize that — and just in time for the debates.

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