WASHINGTON -- George W. Bush pulled himself together sufficiently in St. Louis Friday night to avoid losing the presidency to John Kerry on debater's points, and got down to his foremost task. The Republican president concentrated on imprinting the scarlet letter "L" (for liberal) on his Democratic challenger's chest. Whether or not he succeeds may determine who is elected.
It seems like a lifetime since July 1991 when Sen. Kerry declared: "I'm a liberal, and proud of it." Thirteen years later, the L-word is forbidden language for Kerry. He is attempting what only Bill Clinton among recent Democratic candidates has accomplished: covering left-of-center policies with a facade of moderation. Kerry, less skilled than Clinton as a political dancer, is burdened with a 30-year record of nearly unbroken liberal votes.
What bothered Republican leaders nationwide about President Bush's performance in the first debate at Coral Gables, Fla., was not so much his bizarre body language as his failure to press the liberal label on Kerry. Bush was ready in St. Louis, with the line used 60 years ago by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis about challengers retreating from his lethal fists: "He can run, but he can't hide" -- referring to Kerry's desire to escape his voting record.
The way this issue works was shown in the town-hall-style debate when selected questioner Sarah Degenhart asked Kerry for assurances that "tax dollars would not go to support abortion." He answered as he often does when he is on the wrong side in terms of national support. Not addressing the question of federal funding (which is unpopular), the senator made a Clinton-like gesture of feeling Sarah's pain. As a lifelong Catholic and former altar boy, he said, "I cannot tell you how deeply I respect the belief about life and when it begins." But, he said, he could not impose his views on others.
"I'm trying to decipher that," Bush cracked, perhaps contemplating laying into a star of the NARAL abortion lobby posing as an enemy of abortion. That move might have been unpresidential and counterproductive. Instead, he replied to the question: "My answer is we're not going to spend taxpayers' money on abortion." He then endorsed "the culture of life," drawing from Kerry a rebuke for being simplistic.
Next, Norma-Jean Laurent asked Kerry how he could reconcile his concern with health care costs by picking ace accident lawyer John Edwards as his running mate. "Very easily," replied Kerry, explaining: "I believe that we will be able to get a fix that has eluded everybody else, because we know how to do it." This from two senators who faithfully have voted against tort reform and are supported handsomely by the trial lawyer's lobby.
This is a yearlong struggle waged in a campaign with only three weeks to go. From the start, Kerry advisers warned of a major advertising effort to paint the senator as a liberal. Actually, Kerry's career liberal record is measured by the Americans for Democratic Action as 92 percent, two points better than 90 percent for his indisputably liberal Massachusetts colleague, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Yet, the Republicans are accused of a smear.
So, Kerry describes himself as anti-abortion, pro-tort reform and fiscally conservative. When Bush described Kerry's big health insurance plan as "what liberals do," Kerry charged: "The president is just trying to scare everybody here with throwing labels around."
Acknowledgement that the liberal label comes from a lifetime of public service is studiously avoided by the Kerry campaign. For three decades, Kerry has adhered unconditionally to a multilateral foreign policy. Consequently, at Coral Gables, it was natural for him to repeatedly mention "summits" to solve Iraq and urge a "global test" for U.S. initiatives. After polls showed that these were the least popular elements of Kerry's winning performance in Florida, "summit" and "global test" were dropped from the senator's vocabulary at St. Louis.
Conventional wisdom says the Republicans pin the scarlet L on Kerry because it energizes their conservative base. Much more really is at stake. John Kerry seeks the undecided and persuadable voters by campaigning as an ideologically moderate, fiscally conservative champion of the middle class. George W. Bush made that harder in the second debate.