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The late Sunday afternoon rebroadcast of Sunday morning’s Fox News Sunday featured an interview with Sens. Kerry and Edwards, a discussion segment with Bush-Cheney chief strategist Matthew Dowd and Newt Gingrich, and then a panel discussion with Fred, Mort, Mara and Bill Kristol filling in for Juan Williams.

The most striking aspect of the program was how the intervening event of Tom Ridge’s announcement of the higher terror alert had rendered so much of the program irrelevant. Some of what mattered so much Sunday morning seemed beside the point following the sudden refocusing on the one issue that should and will drive this campaign: Who is more competent to direct the war and protect the country while doing so?

This return to center stage of the war also underscores why the Kerry-Moore convention failed so miserably. The USA Today-Gallup-CNN poll shows Bush actually picking up ground during the Democrats’ big week, and I think the reason is that even though the Dems tried to put a game face on the national security issue, if the public is thinking about the war, they are also thinking about how ill-equipped the Dems are to wage it.

Told of the news that the terror alert was about to be raised, Howard Dean on CNN immediately speculated that politics had motivated the call – underlining why the party which gave him a key speaking role is not to be trusted on life-and-death issues. That level of paranoia about the GOP – as opposed to the terrorists – shows Moore’s Disease has spread far and wide within the Democratic Party.

The Fox talking heads were also fairly unified in dismissing the idea that John Kerry’s way-left Senate voting record of 20 years would matter in the campaign. Kerry is trying to get away with a Bourne candidacy, acting as a key player who simply cannot recall the specifics of a long career in public life.

Dowd and Newt focused on this strange unwillingness by Kerry to celebrate his own record, but Mort Kondracke, Bill Kristol and Mara Liasson all agreed that time spent on Kerry’s Senate votes was time wasted by the Bush campaign.

On this they are wrong. Because John Kerry has a long record of immediate relevance to the immediate threats posed to Americans. People worried about going to work in the Citigroup tower, the New York Stock Exchange, the Prudential complex or the various addresses near to the named D.C. targets are going to be thinking of little else than what the government can do to erase that threat. And they are going to be looking at the choice in November with that threat in mind.

John Bourne Kerry wants to talk a tough game about this threat, but he’s been voting on defense and intelligence matters for two decades. Many of the crucial weapon systems in use in Afghanistan and Iraq have been opposed by Kerry, and the intelligence that has provided at least this much warning is coming from a system that, however flawed, would have been half the current strength had John Kerry’s radical defunding plan been adopted when he proposed it.

The various commentators Sunday morning stressed that this election is largely a referendum on Bush – one that cannot be won by disqualifying Kerry on the basis of a whacked-out record in the Senate. Such pronouncements ignore the most common bit of conventional wisdom in circulation this year: the inevitability of a tight race. When tens of millions are voting but many of the states will be decided by tens of thousands of votes, every issue matters that has traction among even a percent or two of voters.

My guess is that there are millions of Americans who don’t know the specifics of Kerry’s deeply ingrained hostility to the use of American force, his opposition to robust defense spending, and his radical views vis-a-vis the necessity of large intelligence appropriations. The folks inside the Beltway always seem to overlook the undeniable fact that most of what goes on inside the 495 doesn’t get much attention beyond it.

Not until a crisis erupts, that is, as one may be erupting now. And not until an election looms and a choice must be made, as one must be made now.

Bush-Cheney ’04 is well advised to spend a lot of time telling the truth about John Kerry’s record. The complaint will come that this is negative campaigning. Better to be thought negative than to allow the American electorate to proceed to the polls under the impression that the speeches of Boston had anything to do with beliefs of John Kerry as expressed in more than 5,000 votes cast over 20 years.

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