Chewing their way through campaign strategies the way my dog goes through tennis balls, the Democratic front-runners are now borrowing pages from Presidents Kennedy and Reagan in their continuing effort to get ahead by tearing down President Bush.
Both Rep. Richard Gephardt and Sen. John Kerry have started asking the question - in one form or another - "Are you safer today than you were before Bush entered office?"
Gephardt: "George Bush has left us less safe and less secure than we were four years ago." Kerry: "I think the American people have a right to ask the question of whether or not we are safer today than we were three years ago." My dog Cosmo: "Where's the tennis ball I had three minutes ago?"
Sorry, that's not relevant.
Deliberate or not, this is a variation of Ronald Reagan's famous 1980 question, "Are you better off today than you were four years ago?" which many consider to have been the crystallizing question of that contest and the source of Reagan's victory.
It's also a play on John F. Kennedy's more cynical 1960 campaign strategy, in which he attempted to run to the "right" of President Eisenhower by decrying a "missile gap" with the Soviets. There was no missile gap, and there's every reason to believe Kennedy knew that. Today, many of the Democrats are claiming they're tougher on terrorism than Bush and that they would close the security gap.
There are problems with both of these approaches. The question "are you more secure today" is simply a lot more difficult to answer than the original Reagan formulation. People know whether their economic condition is better or worse than it was four years ago. We are all the best judges of our own economic plight. But the threat from terrorism is abstract. How does the average person know if he or she is in more danger than four years ago?
Also, the question is misleading. Four years ago, people may have felt a lot more secure than they do today, but in part that was because the Clinton Administration had swept much of the threat under the rug.
Bush can make a reasonable - and, to me, persuasive - case that his actions were necessary for our long-term safety because the prior administration kept kicking the can down the road. Indeed, even if people actually do feel less secure today, the president can still make the case that such insecurity is the necessary consequence of addressing threats head-on.
Voters surely felt more insecure after Pearl Harbor, that doesn't mean they thought FDR was wrong to prosecute WWII. Bush can make the case that the risks we face today are worth preventing greater risks tomorrow.
So, Bush's opponents need to make the case that voters are less safe because of Bush's actions and that they would do things better than Bush has. That's a lot different than asking, "Are you better off economically than you were four years ago?"
This brings us to the Kennedyesque "security gap" argument, which is too cynical to fly. Gephardt and Kerry both voted for the war against Iraq, however reluctantly. They can't claim to have been "misled" by those infamous 16 words - "The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" - because A) they had access to the same intelligence as the president and B) those 16 words were uttered months after Congress had already authorized the president to go to war.
Indeed, in Democratic circles Gephardt's support for the war, which was crucial as he was the minority leader, is defended on the grounds that Gephardt believed taking war "off the table" as an issue would allow Democrats to make domestic issues the central focus of the 2004 elections. Well, if that's true, Gephardt is obviously guilty of sending our troops to battle for narrow partisan reasons, something Democrats suggest unfairly about Bush.
But even leaving that aside, with the exception of Senator Bob Graham, none of the Democrats can come close to claiming they'd be more aggressive on national security than President Bush (and Graham's record is all over the place). All of the Democrats denounce the Patriot Act as "going too far," and to one extent or another almost all argue for putting the United Nations' interests ahead of our own.
Today we really are supporting any friend and opposing almost any foe in order to spread liberty around the globe, while the Democrats sound like they want detente with the terrorists and their supporters. And that's not an argument for winning the White House in 2004.