Bush baited his trap and the liberal walked in

Sen. John Kerry has fallen into a trap.

As the debate in the presidential race shifted from Iraq to domestic issues, driven by the topic chosen for the third debate, the Massachusetts Democrat moved further and further to the left, boasting of a “plan” to save Social Security, another to protect and extend Medicare, a third to cover all Americans with health insurance, and one more to create new jobs and stop outsourcing by American companies. With each new promise, he seemed to one-up by promising ever more generous federal programs.
Sen. John Kerry has fallen into a trap.

As the debate in the presidential race shifted from Iraq to domestic issues, driven by the topic chosen for the third debate, the Massachusetts Democrat moved further and further to the left, boasting of a “plan” to save Social Security, another to protect and extend Medicare, a third to cover all Americans with health insurance, and one more to create new jobs and stop outsourcing by American companies. With each new promise, he seemed to one-up by promising ever more generous federal programs.

President Bush, meanwhile, lay in the weeds, continuing to accuse Kerry of flip-flopping, an accusation increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of the Democrat’s assertive and unwavering attitude in the debates. It is hard to say a man is indecisive when he appears so firm in his positions. But Bush continued to pound away at Kerry’s switches of positions on the war in an effort to blunt his rival’s criticisms of the turmoil in Iraq.

Then, as the third debate wound down, Bush closed the trap on Kerry, unveiling the “L” word, accusing Kerry of being on the “extreme left bank” of our politics, far from the mainstream, which the Republican claims to inhabit. No sooner was the debate over than Bush switched his media attack from flip-flopping to liberalism and labeled Kerry even to the left of Ted Kennedy, a taxer and spender in the tradition of former Gov. Mike Dukakis.

The very same attack that almost cost Bill Clinton the election in 1992 now seems to be damaging Kerry significantly, as he trails in every national poll, except for the hopelessly biased New York Times survey, which weights and bends its data to produce a tie.

We should remember that Bush’s father kept gaining on Clinton throughout late October in 1992 as the Bush-Quayle ticket pasted Clinton with accusations of liberalism, which gained increasing traction among the voters. By the Thursday before the election, Bush actually pulled even with Clinton in most tracking surveys.

It was only the prejudicial and politically timed announcement by Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh that he was planning to indict President Reagan’s defense secretary, Cap Weinberger, that saved Clinton and his presidential prospects, catalyzing a five-point gain in the final four days of the campaign.

Bush now follows a two-pronged strategy. On the negative, under the tutelage of Karl Rove, he attacks Kerry for liberalism and predicts major tax increases for all voters, even those well south of $200,000 in annual income. And on the positive side, guided by Karen Hughes, he seeks to bring the terror issue home to voters,
especially to women, by tying his aggressive efforts abroad to homeland security, a tactic unveiled at the Republican convention.

The result of this strategy is that Bush has surged in the days after the debates.

Having entered the debates well ahead of Kerry, he squandered his lead by his dismal performance in the first debate.

While Bush did better in the second and third debates, 15 million fewer viewers
watched these encounters than had seen the first debate fiasco. When the dust settled, Bush could boast no better than a tie with Kerry.

But since then, he has moved into a lead averaging four points in various national polls, largely impelled by his focus on Kerry’s liberalism. In response, the Democrat cannot now back off his big spending plans without risking a rekindling of the flip-flopping charges that have bedeviled him ever since his emergence on the national state.

So Bush now has a domestic strategy — calling Kerry to task over taxes and liberalism — and a foreign strategy highlighting the salience of the war on terror, so that he wins the votes of those who want a firm and strong wartime protector against terror. He is prepared to move either way as events highlight one of the other aspect of the race as the election approaches.

Bush is playing chess, but all Kerry can manage is a poor game of checkers.

Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.