I’m starting to think that John Kerry is either an incredibly smart campaigner or an incredibly dumb one. It may be a bit of both, depending on how things go.
Kerry is slamming Bush on spending today, unleashing ads that argue that Bush has passed $6 trillion in unfunded mandates. Now, this is an attack that isn’t entirely without justification – Bush’s spending habits are appalling.
On the other hand, Kerry is the very model of the tax-and-spend Democrat. By his own admission, his forthcoming budget plan can’t even pay for his own campaign promises. In order to pay for just his proposed drug bill, Kerry would have to raise taxes by $900 billion dollars.
Kerry is clearly not trying to run on his record – given his record who can blame him? Instead, he’s trying to nail the President on whatever he can – first national security, and now spending.
However, this is inherently dangerous tactic. By making terrorism the up-front issue in the campaign, Kerry has likely helped Bush. If the election is about terrorism. Kerry doesn’t have a shot. Kerry’s numbers on that issue are abysmal. If the election is about the economy, Kerry has a better shot, but if the issue is spending, Kerry’s own record belies his attempts to paint himself as a budget hawk – in fact, look how far it got Howard Dean.
Yet Kerry’s strategy isn’t stupid. He knows that if he can sow enough FUD with conservatives, he can get enough to stay home and propel himself into the White House. It’s quite possible that Kerry has realized that the only way he can win is not in a Bush vs. Kerry race, but a Bush vs. Bush race – which is exactly what his campaign is doing.
In terms of strategy, it’s probably not an unwise move, but it’s risky. Bush needs to be more proactive. He needs to get Iraq under control, and he need to hope that the employment figures continue to improve as they did in the past month. If that happens, he can easily deflect Kerry’s blows. Moreover, he’s done an excellent job of defining Kerry down as yet another high-tax, high-spending liberal waffler à la Dukakis.
Bush not only has to beat Kerry, he has to work on maintaining his own image. That will be the real challenge in this race. Bush has to find the right balance between keeping Kerry’s numbers down and his own up. This election is very much up in the air, and Bush faces a formidable challenge. However, Bush has faced tough races before. This election isn’t over, not by a long shot, and anything could happen between now and November.
UPDATE: Via Andrew Sullivan, a piece on why a campaign shake-up in the Kerry camp may portend a return to the listless and uninspiring Kerry campaign of November and December 2003.