Foreign Policy

Kennedy's Lesson For Kerry

It's not the economy, stupid. It's strength

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This year as in every presidential year, it's the economy, stupid. "I'm reasonably relaxed about it," the first President Bush said recently of the upcoming election, "because I believe that elections are decided by the economy. I know mine was." And so Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, needs to establish his bona fides on foreign policy and national security without upstaging the bread-and-butter issues that will seal the race.

Right?

Wrong. This year Kerry would be better advised to throw the post-Vietnam Democratic playbook out the window and reconnect with a different Democratic strategy, one whose time, after 44 years, has come again.

It is 1960. A Democratic senator from Massachusetts faces Richard Nixon, a candidate who boasts eight years of White House experience and is arguably the fiercest Cold Warrior in the mainstream of the Republican Party. The retiring Republican incumbent is no less a personage than Dwight D. Eisenhower, the beloved general who won World War II. As if that were not daunting enough, the Democratic nominee faces a credibility gap. He is young, inexperienced, and little known to the country. The Democrats do have one strong card, which is that the economy is struggling to emerge from a recession. What the Democrats should do, then, is obvious: Shift the race to favorable terrain by focusing on the economy.

John F. Kennedy does not do that. He does the opposite. He attacks the Nixon-Eisenhower incumbency on, of all issues, national security—not from the left but from the right.

In the context of 2004, the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates make astonishing reading. Over the course of four debates, Kennedy presents himself as a one-issue candidate, and his issue is restoring American strength. U.S. power, prestige, and influence have all declined, he charges. "We have not maintained our position and our prestige." No matter where the questions lead, he pivots back to something like, "I believe that our power and prestige in the last eight years have declined." Opening the first debate, which is supposed to be devoted to domestic policy, he declares: "I think the question before the American people is: Are we doing as much as we can do? Are we as strong as we should be?"

Kennedy cites the vaunted and, as it turned out, imaginary missile gap, but that is only one of his arguments. He lists overseas polls showing a "sharp drop" in "our prestige and influence around the world." He lists United Nations votes that have gone against the United States. He says that America lags in outer space and in economic growth. "If we fail to develop sufficient military and economic and social strength in this country," he says, "then I think the tide could begin to run against us."

Yes, he talks about the economy, deploring, for example, slow job creation. But when he talks about the economy, here is how he sounds: "I'm not satisfied when the United States had last year the lowest rate of economic growth of any major industrialized society in the world—because economic growth means strength and vitality. It means we're able to sustain our defenses; it means we're able to meet our commitments abroad."

Nixon can hardly believe he is being pressed on security, of all issues. "It isn't necessary to run America down in order to build it up," he says, insisting, correctly, that the United States is decisively stronger than the Soviet Union. Nothing he tries, however, pushes Kennedy off message. Nixon ends up sounding defensive and complacent. Partly by dint of sheer relentlessness, Kennedy mugs the Republicans on national security and manages to eke out victory in a race he should have lost.

To run a national security campaign against the likes of Nixon and Eisenhower was one of the most audacious political gambles of the last century. Why did Kennedy do it? He understood that the country's feeling of economic vulnerability gave him an opening; but he also understood that Cold War fears were the day's dominant concern, and that he could not exploit the economy without first having credibility on security. By promising new strength and vigor ("Get this country moving again"), he turned his youth and freshness to advantage. And he ran at a time when recent Democratic presidents had led the country into and through war. To Kennedy and the electorate of 1960, a Democratic campaign premised on strength seemed natural.

Such a campaign seems natural no longer. For three decades, Democrats have labored under a structural disadvantage on security and foreign policy that runs to anywhere between 5 and 40 percentage points, depending on the year. Recent opinion polls show Kerry beating President Bush on handling the economy, and Bush beating Kerry on handling terrorism and (by a smaller margin) Iraq.

Yet the polls also show Bush gaining on Kerry on the economy, perhaps not surprisingly, given that the economy is starting to hum. More surprising is that Kerry is gaining on Bush on terrorism and Iraq. Kerry, like Kennedy, approaches the country as a war hero at a time when voters are feeling uneasy about the security situation. "He's got a historic opportunity to close a structural disadvantage that has bedeviled our party for 30 years," says Will Marshall, the president of the Progressive Policy Institute, a think tank associated with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. At the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, Jeremy Rosner agrees. "Whether you assume the gap has gone or it's narrowed, there clearly is something changing," he says. "Kerry has a unique opportunity to lock in the change, given that he is a war hero with unique credibility on these issues."

Kerry is pushing hard on strength. He calls for adding 40,000 troops to the military, pursuing nonproliferation more vigorously, putting more U.S. boots on the ground in engagements such as Iraq and Afghanistan, redoubling homeland-defense efforts, and repairing frayed alliances. Rosner points out that Kerry has already given seven major addresses on foreign policy and national security—two more than Bill Clinton gave in the entire 1992 campaign. "Strength and leadership, that is our theme," a Kerry adviser said in an interview. "Everything ties into that."

Well, not everything. Kerry spent much of June talking about butter, not guns: creating jobs, raising the minimum wage, relieving "middle-class squeeze," expanding health cover- age, and so forth. In mid-June, his Web site's press page listed six items on the economy ("Kerry Unveils Plan to Ease Strain on Working Families"), one on fundraising, one on Flag Day, one on biomedical research, one commemorating the Soviet collapse—and none on security. "I think the campaign is thinking we should do it all," the Kerry adviser said. "These are all winning issues for us, and we're going to do them all."

Every bone in the Democrats' bodies will tell them to run such a "fox" campaign. (According to lore, the fox sees many things, whereas the hedgehog sees one big thing.) Spreading Kerry's bets seems safest. But JFK knew better. And so should Kerry.

Like Kennedy, Kerry has a credibility gap to close, though Kerry's problem is not his age but his party's 30-year reputation for softness on security. The voters in 2004, as in 1960, view security as a threshold test that Kerry must pass before they will listen to his economic message. And Kerry, like Kennedy, needs a positive theme, a vision. Being the un-Bush will not suffice to capture wavering independent voters.

Kennedy's genius was to solve all of these problems at once by organizing his messages under the single theme of strength and thus stealing the Republicans' best issue. Kerry could do the same. He could argue, for example, that Bush is depleting America's economic, military, and diplomatic strength by running large deficits, stretching the military too thin, and alienating allies.

Of course, Kerry says all of those things already. What he has not done is what Kennedy did: dare to announce that one, and only one, overriding goal will define his candidacy and his presidency, and that this goal is to strengthen and secure a country that is less strong and safe than it ought to be. To do that, Kerry would need to say "strength" so often that people think it's his middle name.

With the platform about to be vetted and the convention coming soon after, Kerry has only a few more weeks to frame his candidacy. Being a fox worked well for Bill Clinton. But 2004 is less like 1992 or 1996 or, for that matter, 2000 (when foreign policy and security hardly registered) than it is like 1960, a year of the hedgehog. What remains to be seen is whether John F. Kerry has the daring and discipline to emulate John F. Kennedy.

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