Making the right moves

Posted: Feb 10, 2004 12:00 AM

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the increasing risk that President Bush could tumble in the polls and actually lose the election this fall. That column was meant to be an early wake-up call to a White House that seems slow to notice how quickly it has been sinking. An unusually high number of readers let me know of their similar concerns. I found that reassuring, as over the years I have learned that we often don't want to hear about potential failure until it's too late.

Since that column, Bush's poll ratings have further plunged, and Democrats sense that victory may be within their grasp. But here's another wake-up warning -- to John Kerry and company. A few right moves by the White House and a few wrong ones by Kerry and the Democrats could by this fall turn the current polls showing Kerry ahead into a bittersweet, distant memory.

For Bush, what are the "right moves"? Most critically, the president and his crew must stop talking endlessly about Iraq and the war on terrorism. Yes, both issues are of paramount importance -- but just deal with them, without the constant chest-thumping. An endlessly repeating pattern of self-congratulation about security initiatives is bad enough. But constantly responding to the Democrats' attacks about the Iraq war is simply falling into their trap. It was poor political strategy for the president to travel to South Carolina on the heels of the Democratic primary, only to focus on port security, even as many South Carolinians who voted for him in 2000 have lost their textile jobs since then. Sure security is important; it's just not what is on the voters' minds.

The White House should scrap its domestic agenda -- so filled with over-spending and inside-the-Beltway games -- and instead adopt immediately a program to restore American jobs to Americans. That doesn't have to mean a trade war, but it could mean real incentives for corporations to keep jobs stateside. As a complement to such a move, the White House also should think about rescinding its proposed cuts to the Small Business Administration, where many of the entrepreneurs who keep the economy growing get their start in business. If they hop to it, the White House can salvage the issue.

Potential wrong moves by Kerry's campaign are many. There's geography, for one thing. Don't be fooled by Kerry's solid Democratic primary performances in Tennessee and Virginia. In the South there is a perception that he is a somewhat effete Northerner with a genuine resistance to dealing with anything Southern. Adding John Edwards or Florida's Bob Graham to the ticket might help. But Kerry must do more than that if he is to attract critical independent voters from a region so crucial to his electoral fortunes.

With policies like those Kerry is pushing, it's no wonder the Democrats haven't won the White House with a non-Southern nominee since John Kennedy. And proposing to roll back tax cuts is one sure-fire way to guarantee these voters stay with Bush. Kerry -- or whoever wins the Democratic nomination -- must understand that most moderate swing voters don't buy the rhetoric that "tax cuts are for the wealthy." Most of them got something out of the Bush tax cuts. And with Kerry being one of those "rich people" himself, he should drop the traditional Democratic "class warfare" mantra -- or potentially lose in November.

Kerry also will have to defend his rampant voting absenteeism in the Senate. Congressional Quarterly found that when it came to voting showdowns with the White House last year, Kerry showed up to vote only 28 percent of the time.

It seems a truism that just when a candidate is riding high, it soon becomes clear they have risen too swiftly. That was the case this year when the Bush White House drifted far from its base by proposing a domestic agenda of doing nothing and spending everything.

Fortunately, there are signs that the sleeping giant of the Bush White House might be gaining a renewed sense of humility and realism -- just in time to reverse an otherwise likely disaster in November.

As for Kerry, it remains to be seen whether he will drop his regal "Senate Speak" style and moderate his Massachusetts liberal rhetoric in time to convert his current momentum into a sustainable base of electoral support.