The politics of security

Posted: Sep 14, 2004 12:00 AM

 As the John Kerry campaign tries desperately to find its footing, many polls suggest a prime reason for the decline of its candidate. National surveys show that Americans are growing more confident in George W. Bush's ability to successfully combat terrorism. This may be the single biggest reason that he is now enjoying a lead over his Democratic rival. And if a terrorism warning does come before Election Day, it would be bad political news for Kerry, because voters would be more likely to rally around their current leader.
If heightened warnings do happen, the Kerry campaign might conceivably take a cue from Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11" and argue that any such alerts are cynical attempts by the Bush campaign to take advantage of the situation for political gain. But according to our latest InsiderAdvantage survey, that tactic on behalf of Kerry wouldn't work. The survey asked:

 Do you believe that the Bush administration uses terror alerts to gain a political advantage, or do you believe that they use the alerts to draw attention to potential danger?

 Used to draw attention to potential danger............58 percent
 Used for political advantage.................................27 percent
 Don't know.........................................................15 percent

 The poll was conducted Aug. 13-14 among 500 Americans. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 That's a huge majority who don't buy into the political hi-jinks theory of terrorist alerts. Even among Democrats polled, less than half believed the White House tries to manipulate public opinion with made-up scares.

 The irony of this charge against Bush is that terrorist alerts don't seem to inure to his political benefit anyway. Every time the nation goes on an elevated alert, the stock market tumbles, consumers buy less, travelers travel less, and a vague but palpable cloud of uneasiness hangs in the air.

 Of course, the United States hasn't suffered many of these high alerts lately. Sure, the Democratic and Republican conventions and the G-8 summit were all held with fortress-like security. And yes, we've been warned that more attacks on the homeland, or on U.S. interests abroad, are probably inevitable. But the dire warnings of possible imminent attack haven't materialized lately.

 And what has happened politically as a result? You guessed it: President Bush has risen in the polls. The lesson to be learned is that Americans like stability more than well-intended urgency. They know danger lurks, but that doesn't mean they respond with more political support to those that officially warn them.

 The essence of this is that the president isn't gaining steam from a manipulation of the terrorist alert system. He's found new life because the Kerry campaign has lost its message, and thus its earlier momentum. After completely mishandling the "Swift Boat" attack ads, Kerry now has failed to develop any semblance of a coherent campaign message. One minute he's trying to prove that he too can tackle terrorism. The next minute he's harping about jobs. His campaign is spinning like a top. It's close to spinning out of control.

 All the while, Kerry's campaign strategists have been pinning their hopes on silliness like Bush's long-ago military records. Or on Kitty Kelley's arguably specious and conveniently timed unauthorized biography of the president. These things -- even if some of the mud sticks to the president -- simply don't matter to most voters.

 In the end, the president hasn't needed terrorism scares or a national crisis to derail the Democratic nominee. The Kerry team is doing enough. They've all but ignored what could be real campaign currency -- the dead weight of a less-than-popular vice president, a still-sluggish economy, and a Bush domestic agenda that has moved in fits and starts when it moves at all. The Kerry campaign has fallen into the same double-hinged trap that defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988. They are not only losing, they are starting to panic.

 The Kerry team needs to raise a "code red" alert of its own. Either find a storyline and stick to it, or watch what were once battleground states start to melt away. And here's another tip: If the Department of Homeland Security does issue a heightened terror alert in the next seven weeks, don't accuse the White House of crying wolf to win votes. The public isn't buying it.