Many people expected George W. Bush to fare poorly in the debates on domestic issues. But he seems to have done better than he did in the first debate, which was devoted solely to foreign policy. In the second and third debates, he scored some points by characterizing John Kerry as a Massachusetts liberal. But he did more than that. He did what he did in the 2000 campaign and as president: He redefined the issues.
Democrats tend to win on domestic issues if the question is: Who is going to spend the most money? Voters believe, plausibly, that Democrats will. Thus for many years, education was a Democratic issue. Democrats, with their strong support from the teachers union, always promised to spend more.
But in 2000, Bush redefined education. What mattered was not inputs (money), but outputs (achievement). Students and schools were to be held accountable for results. In 2001, with support from Democrats like Sen. Edward Kennedy and Rep. George Miller, who were genuinely concerned about the low achievement levels of low-income students, Bush pushed through his education bill.
The political result is that Republicans do about as well as Democrats with voters on education. That's why in the third debate, Bush kept returning to education -- when asked about jobs, when asked about the gap between rich and poor, when asked about affirmative action. He argued that progress is being made and that his education reform, which covers grades five through eight, should be extended to high school.
Bush worked to redefine other issues, as well. Democrats still have an advantage with voters on health care, and John Kerry took pains to describe and defend his health care program, which is his major domestic initiative. Kerry would expand existing programs -- Medicaid, the Children's Health Insurance Program -- to reduce the number of uninsured. He would also take some of the burden of existing insurance programs off large unionized employers -- a boon to the United Auto Workers.
Bush would move in another direction. He argued that government-run programs would lead to rationing and that costs cannot be contained until consumers bear part of the cost. He called for more health saving accounts, which were included as a small part of the 2003 Medicare prescription drug law.