It’s already pretty clear what the Bush strategy will be during the first debate. It’s the same strategy that’s been in place since the early days of the campaign (this one, the Clinton one, the Dukakis one). Bush will continue to position Kerry as weak and wishy washy on issues surrounding national defense.
Kerry will have two key challenges in this initial debate (three if you count managing not to sweat profusely). The first challenge will be to reposition himself as tough, strong on defense and solid in his positions. In some ways, this will be a three debate challenge for Kerry as many undecideds still don’t know him all that well. As I’ve written before (in Once, Twice, Three Times a Candidate), Kerry will be judged more by how his performances compare to one another than by how they compare to Bush’s.
The second challenge for Kerry is less obvious, but equally important. There is no way to dismantle, in a few hours, the tough guy image (the swagger, the Texas drawl, the moralistic and simplistic language, the I’m just a regular guy vocabulary) W has been honing for several years. To attack Bush on the issue of his toughness would be a mistake.
Kerry needs to go after Bush for being wrong on foreign policy. It’s that simple. Yes, you know where he stands. And yes, he has kicked a whole lot of ass in the last few years. But the President’s biggest vulnerability (and by extension, the country’s) is that he has more often than not kicked the wrong ass. Aggressiveness is only a virtue if it makes us more secure, not less so.
Iraq is the most obvious example. Nearly everyone outside of the administration’s incredible shrinking inner circle now agrees that the Iraq war at best was based on a terrible mistake and has been mishandled from the moment major combat ended. That’s the obvious one. But the President’s wildly swinging foreign policy disasters don’t end there.
Here are a few areas where Kerry can go after Bush.
North Korea: Here we see the Bush focus on what is known as moral politics. North Korea’s leaders are evil. Therefore we will not communicate with North Korea’s leaders. Period. This strategy feels good and may be effective in a setting such as, say, a school playground. But it is the wrong way to run a super power’s foreign policy. I recently attended a lunch with former Secretary of Defense William Perry. Perry is no fan of the Iraq war and believes that the Bush administration has failed to secure our nuclear facilities and ports. But according to Perry, the Bush mistake “of the century” was his decision to repeatedly humiliate North (and South for that matter) Korea before cutting off talks completely (even at the multilateral meetings among interested countries, the U.S. rep simply reads a statement and checks out).
When it comes to North Korea, Bush is tough. But he’s wrong. And America is less secure.
Middle East: Perhaps this policy can be traced (like the NK one to a certain extent) to a contempt for everything Clinton. Whatever the case, the Bush administration has made only backwards strides on the so-called roadmap to peace. I hate Arafat as much as anyone and the tough talk about terrorists and the unyielding support for Israel’s every move makes me feel good. But so far, it hasn’t made Israelis safer. It hasn’t sapped power from the worst of the worst among Palestinian leaders. And it hasn’t improved relations between Israel and her neighbors.
When it comes to the Middle East, Bush is tough. But he’s wrong. And because the Middle East is so connected with Islamic terrorism, America is less secure.
Missile Defense: According to a recent piece in the New Yorker: “The [missile defense] appropriation for next year is more than ten billion dollars – about the same as the Army’s entire R. & D. budget, twice the budget of the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection in the Department of Homeland Security, and nearly twice the department’s allocation for the Coast Guard … Estimates [are] that the program will cost fifty-three billion dollars through 2009.” This cash and effort is being shifted towards a program of dubious effectiveness and questionable need at a moment in our history when more urgent issues are being ignored. Our shipping and port system is vulnerable. Our nuclear facilities are not well protected. As you’re reading this, more than 120,000 hours of potentially terrorism-related recordings have not been translated by the FBI. The missile defense billions (like the Iraq billions) could be better spent.
Bush is tough when it comes to national defense. But he and his priorities are wrong. And because of that, America is less secure.
Shrinking Coalition: Since major combat operations have ended in Iraq, the number of countries in the coalition has gone down, not up. America’s reputation abroad has suffered a similar demise. Yes, Bush has been steadfast. Yes, we will never, as the Veep likes to remind us, ask for a permission slip to defend our country. But the war on terror is as much an international law enforcement challenge as it is an all out war. And we need our allies to win both. Our allies are fewer in number and less willing to assist than they were a couple of years ago.
Yes, Bush has been tough when dealing with our allies. But he has been wrongheaded, humiliating and offensive. And because of that, America is less secure.
This is where Kerry needs to hit Bush; for being wrong and making us less safe.
When you think about the Bush record of toughness, it’s not such a tough an act to follow.