The New York Times reports on a 90-day plan by the Bush administration to define John Kerry to their benefit and his detriment. The main thrusts, apparently, will be slamming the apparent Democratic presidential candidate on national defense (he's weak) and taxes (he's too strong). The Bushies are honest enough, at least, not to talk about Kerry as a big-spending liberal, since it would scarcely be possible for Kerry to outspend Bush, who has raised discretionary outlays 39 percent in his administration, increasing federal spending 2.5 times faster than national income.
Lacking spending and government size as a significant point of contention between Bush and Kerry, the campaign so far seems largely about trying to outdo the other guy on those issues where the presumption is that all the voters who matter want the same things—getting tough on corporate crime and terrorism.
There is zero political capital to be gained by trying to stake out fresh ground on these matters. This is both good and bad news for both candidates, since it leaves results dependent entirely on impressions, which can be manipulated more easily than pure facts. Now it will just be a question of who can most skillfully and intelligently bamboozle the right small number of people with the right interests in the right states. Predictions as to who will manage to pull this off best are absurdly premature. As of today, Bush and Kerry seem neck and neck.
Most people eligible to vote will doubtless continue to not bother, and undoubtedly the painful similarities between the likely results of a Bush or Kerry administration are a big part of the reason for that. Bush has more money, sure, but money cannot buy votes; it can only buy communication. If there is any justice or sense among the electorate, Bush will find that news media coverage, both traditional and on the Web, giving honest appraisals of exactly what he's done and what he's likely to continue to do, will speak much louder than money or campaign ads. Such honest appraisal would give little reason, on substantive grounds, for anyone to feel a strong preference for Bush over Kerry.
Bush, for example, is a big entitlement spender not afraid to mislead us about potential costs, and ferociously dedicated to federal meddling in education at state expense. Kerry, on the other hand, is a big entitlement spender who may or may not mislead us about the cost, and believes in spending federal money on federal control of education. Not exactly barricade fodder.
Bush believes in spreading American values through military force, no questions asked. Kerry believes the same thing, except he thinks we should make sure we drag other nations along with us on our bloody paths. Bush is against gay marriage. So is Kerry. They are both soft trade-agreement free traders, both equally likely to violate those principles for short-term political advantage.
The differences that will energize those voters who are energized will come down to differences in cultural perception, of which candidate is "more like us." What matters is which groups the candidate will more probably go out of his way to please. Kerry, for example, will feel beholden to unions and the disabled in ways Bush is never likely to. And Kerry uses "GLBT" as a category in his Web site issues list without irony or sneer; Bush is unlikely ever to do so. That difference in and of itself will win each candidate a fair number of votes, but it is hard to predict exactly how many votes in either direction. The voting population of the United States—distinct, of course, from the population of the United States—was well-nigh evenly split between Bush and Gore in 2000. In a post-9/11 world, it could well turn out much differently, but it is difficult to see exactly how or why.
Bush waged some wars, both real and metaphorical, and passed the Patriot Act (with Kerry's vote), and there has been no repeat of 9/11. But now we are bogged down in—yes, it's a perfectly fair word for a situation from which we seem to have no intention of ever extricating ourselves—a quagmire in Iraq, which isn't exactly wowing them at the box office. Kerry has spoken out against certain aspects of Patriot Act enforcement (after voting for it), such as secret searches, but is publicly plumping for mandatory national service. Bush hasn't supported forced conscription—yet—but he certainly has shown no reason to believe he'd be strongly opposed if it came down to it. (Hey, it could help defuse any future "national guard" stories that might arise. Everyone must do their part, the well-connected and the luckless!)
The more thoroughly Kerry is defined, though, even through minor differences, the more he seems like Bush in all the worst ways. When Bush's media friends aim their biggest guns at Kerry these days, it is in attempts to cut him off from his own potential fans by pointing out that he has been on either side of many issues, or in harping about such currently irrelevant cultural-identifier issues as his formerly radical anti-Vietnam War stance. Surely, no one believes his attendance at meetings where Vietnam Veterans Against the War supporters bruited about plans to assassinate American officials means that the Kerry of today intends to frag Bill Frist and Tom Delay anytime soon.
With the differences so small, the sheer joys and benefits of dividing government assume an even greater importance as the liberty-minded afraid to "throw away their votes" contemplate the Bush-Kerry dustup. The Yahoo group "Libertarians for Kerry" only has 13 members for now, but divided government, in both theory and apparent practice, holds out perhaps the only hope for putting some brake on government growth, which has truly become a juggernaut. It took 198 years, until 1987, for the federal government to spend a trillion in a year; and only 15 years to double that. Republican Bush is almost halfway to the third trillion a mere three years later.
Bush cannot in good conscience fight on the old-fashioned questions of government's size and role that have at least pretended to define the major party divide since Goldwater's days. All he can do is point fingers at Kerry. More than two trillion more fingers, however, are pointing back at him.