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The Right Issue?

Thursday,  03/25/04  02:48 PM

One of the keys to winning a debate is to keep the discussion to points on which you can win.  There are always many different angles to any debate, and picking the right ones is essential.  In the same way, winning an election depends crucially on picking the right issues.  If the discourse during an election takes place about issues on which you can win, you stand a good chance of winning the election, too.

I think Democrats are making a big mistake by featuring the war on terrorism as an election issue.  This is an issue on which they cannot win.  I know there are a lot of people who disagree strongly with Bush on this issue.  But they are a minority.  Furthermore, for those in the majority, this is a "voting issue"; in other words, they will cast their vote based on how they feel about it.

Bush's handling of the 9/11 attacks, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, the formation of the department of homeland security, etc., are all open to question.  He and his team's record is not perfect.  But to a stable majority of Americans, Bush did and is doing a good job.  As a "wartime president", people have confidence in him.  Democrats may not like it, but they ignore this fact at their peril.  The more Kerry and his team attack the Bush record, the better it is for Bush, because they are keeping the debate on a point that Bush can win

This was born in on me this morning reading about the congressional testimony of Richard Clarke.  Clarke has been very critical of the administration, and has said things that could convince people not to vote for Bush.  But he has done something else, too; he has kept the war on terrorism at the top of the news pages.  And that helps Republicans.  Really.

In the wake of the Madrid train station bombing and subsequent electoral victory by Socialists in Spain, I have heard people wonder whether terrorists might attack in the U.S. just before the election, as a way of tipping the scales toward Kerry.  I would say this depends on how savvy they are.  Because the truth is that any terrorist attacks benefit Bush, by bringing this issue back to the forefront.  Even the Spanish bombings had this effect.  Suddenly all the bad news about job creation was pushed to the back burners.

Ironically, the job market is an issue on which Bush is vulnerable.  There is a structural change under way in the U.S., there are fewer and fewer jobs for unskilled workers.  These jobs are being eliminated by technology or are moving overseas into less expensive labor markets, and they're not coming back.  There is little any President can do about it but saying so provides a weak defense. 

The best thing terrorists could do if they want Kerry to win - and who doesn't doubt that they do (in itself a pretty telling observation) - is to keep things quiet and hope the electoral debate shifts to economic and social issues, on which Bush is much more vulnerable.

[ Immediately afterward: Wow, I just saw this item on the Command Post.  "Over six in 10 think it is likely terrorists will try to influence the outcome of this year’s presidential election with a major attack on U.S. soil later this year."  I'm in that group; regretfully, I don't think terrorists are particularly savvy. ]