The Self Made Pundit
Friday, February 20, 2004
THE KERRY-EDWARDS SHOWDOWN: As the Democratic contest for president effectively becomes a two-person race between Senator John Kerry and Senator John Edwards, many voters are likely to base their decision on which one is the most likely to beat Bush.
For the pragmatic voter in a Democratic primary or caucus, one of the most important attributes in a candidate is the ability to beat Bush. For the idealistic Democratic voter, one of the most important goals to accomplish is ending the misguided policies of Bush – in other words, picking the candidate most likely to beat Bush. Thus, for many Democrats voting for the strongest presidential candidate is both the idealistic and the pragmatic thing to do.
The conventional wisdom has been that Kerry is the strongest candidate. Lately, however, some pundits have argued that Edwards would be the stronger candidate, based on exit polls showing Edwards getting a greater share of the votes of independents and Republicans that have voted in some Democratic primaries.
Although I think the conventional wisdom is often wrong, this is not one of those times. While I think Edwards has some great strengths as a natural campaigner, I don’t think he would be as strong a candidate against Bush as Kerry would be.
The argument that Edwards would be a stronger nominee than Kerry because Edwards has recently outpolled Kerry among independents and Republicans in a few recent primaries suffers from a huge flaw. This argument depends on the assumption that a Democrat that is attractive to independents and Republicans during the Democratic primary season is also going to be attractive in the general election. This assumption is fallacious.
Kerry and Edwards and are now campaigning in the cocoon of the Democratic primaries and caucuses. Once the eventual nominee ventures out into the harsh world of Republican attacks, the dynamics will be vastly different. Bush will do his best to make national security the central issue of the election and to paint the Democratic nominee as weak and uninterested in protecting America from terrorism.
Historically, national security issues have played pivotal roles in nearly all presidential elections since the early days of World War II. In recent presidential elections such national security issues have hurt the Democratic candidate. The perceived weakness of the Democratic candidates on national security issues contributed to losses in 1972, 1980, 1984 and 1988. In 1976, the combination of Watergate, the recent Vietnam debacle and a recession made domestic issues more important. And Gerald Ford (who disastrously claimed in a debate that he did not think that Cold-War Poland was dominated by the Soviet Union) did not come across as particularly strong in any case. The 1992 and 1996 elections were the first post-Cold War elections and national security played far less of a role in those campaigns than in any other presidential election since 1936.
In light of 9/11 and America’s invasion of Iraq, national security issues are likely to resume their historic importance in deciding the 2004 presidential election. This is especially true given Bush’s obvious intent to exploit fear of terrorism. Thus, credibility on national security issues will be essential for the Democratic nominee for president.
Bush is bound to try to make the 2004 election a referendum on national security since he has no record of domestic achievements on which to run. His record on jobs and the economy is the most dismal of any president since Hoover. He has presided over the greatest turnaround in America’s economy since the Great Depression. The only hope that Bush has of a second term is by exploiting a fear of terrorism.
Kerry’s combination of being a war hero, an anti-Vietnam War activist and a Senator for 20 years (not to mention his gravitas) gives Kerry credibility in discussing national security. I actually think Kerry’s activism against the Vietnam War after being a hero in that war can be a plus since it shows both judgment and character. With this background, Kerry stands in stark contrast to Bush, who showed in dealing with Iraq that he foolishly believed that the way to appear strong is to rush into a war without regard for the consequences. John Edwards, with his one Senate term and background as a trial lawyer, just won't have that same credibility.
Bush – the self-styled “war president” – is going to do his best to instill fear in voters and run as the protector of the homeland.
Given his background (not to mention his gut instincts as a fighter), I think Kerry will have greater success in combating this fear mongering.