Attack Politics

Here's a pop quiz. Which presidential candidate said the following: "We have partners, not satellites...The United States needs its European allies, as well as friends in other regions, to help us with security challenges as they arise." Confused? Here's another clue. The candidate said this in the same set-piece foreign policy speech: "I will never place U.S. troops under United Nations command--but the U.N. can help in weapons inspections, peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts."

It was, of course, George W. Bush in November 1999 as he embarked on his journey from Texas governor to 43rd president. The fact that the governor of Texas sounded like the senator for Massachusetts speaks volumes for how far we've traveled in the last four years or so. Depending on your political perspective, you could say that's because Bush has failed to live up to his own standards for American diplomacy. Or you could say that Bush has encountered the same difficulties that all presidents ultimately face, in a turbulent world where the United States reigns almost supreme. In either case, John Kerry is doing no more than Bush four years ago--challenging an administration on its international record.

But whatever the explanation, the role of foreign policy on the campaign trail has changed fundamentally. Four years ago, Bush attacked the White House in order to boost his credentials and add some presidential gravitas to his fledgling campaign. Now, Kerry is attacking the White House to undermine those same credentials. Foreign policy has shifted sharply from a key test of a candidate's credibility to a key means of attacking a candidate's credibility.

So, back in December, Kerry accused the Bush administration of having "compromised American credibility and leadership" by rushing to war in Iraq. "As president, I will not cede our security to any nation or institution," Kerry explained, "but I will always understand that even the only superpower on earth cannot succeed without co-operation and compromise with our friends and allies." Four years ago, Bush attacked Bill Clinton for lacking a strategy in his foreign policy, "moving from crisis to crisis like a cork in a current." Just last month, Kerry attacked Bush for having "no comprehensive strategy for victory in the war on terror--only an ad hoc strategy to keep our enemies at bay."

Now the purists might wail about how diplomacy is plunging into the sewer of politics--at a time when politics is turning nasty. Current conventional wisdom dictates that this is going to be the nastiest presidential election for many years. But is that such a bad thing? Attacks on foreign policy help sharpen the contrast between candidates and their leadership styles at a time of historic global challenges. If anything is worthy of an aggressive exchange of views, it's how the rival candidates plan to deal with terrorism, radical Islam, and the spread of nuclear weapons.

In any case, attacks are just another form of political debate. And there's nothing sacred about national security or foreign policy. Just look at the attack-driven debating style in Britain's House of Commons, which is often held up as the gold standard of political exchange. If you think the Bush-Kerry exchanges on foreign policy are nasty, tune into some of the Iraq questions hurled at Prime Minister Tony Blair each week.

Besides, judging by the reaction of both sides, the nastiness is hardly unwelcome. The Bush campaign was delighted with its initial attacks on Kerry's Senate record, especially his votes on military and intelligence spending. Why? Because it prompted an aggressive response from Kerry, who accused his opponents of questioning his patriotism. That response was seen by the Bushies as overly-defensive--a potential sign of weakness in the months to come. Likewise, the Kerry campaign was delighted with its attacks on Bush's distrust of the U.N. in Iraq and the 9/11 commission. Why? Because the White House shifted policy twice. First it embraced the U.N. in Iraq, then it found time in the president's schedule to talk at greater length to the 9/11 commission. Both shifts looked like the White House was unsettled by the scrappy challenger, cracking the facade of its steady leadership.

This week at the Kerry campaign's swanky new headquarters in downtown DC, Kerry's advisers were congratulating one another for the candidate's attack on Bush's foreign policy at the University of California at Los Angeles last month. Kerry tore into Bush for driving away American allies in the war on terror, and for spending too little on homeland security or on reform in the Islamic world. Yet what delighted Kerry's aides was how the speech had been noticed--and attacked--by William Safire, the New York Times's conservative columnist. Safire had dismissed Kerry's ideas as "thin, political, gimmicky and nave". "I thought the UCLA speech went very well," said one senior aide to another. "Safire felt constrained to attack it."

Aside from the personal satisfaction of annoying a hostile pundit, why does the Kerry campaign savor such moments? Because the primary season has succeeded in forcing the president off his pedestal on some of his most precious issues. According to this week's Washington Post-ABC poll, Kerry is now trusted to do a better job than Bush on a wide range of domestic issues--the economy, jobs, taxes, healthcare. Even on Iraq, Kerry holds a narrow, one-point lead. The only area where Bush enjoys a wide margin over Kerry is the war on terrorism, where he beats his rival by 19 points. If Kerry can dent Bush's advantage on that issue, the president's approval ratings could fall below the critical 50-point mark that spells trouble for any incumbent. If Bush can hold his lead--or even widen it--Kerry's challenge might well stall before the summer conventions.

Foreign policy has become the Florida of the 2004 election, a decisive battleground that could well decide who controls the White House. It might not top the list of voter concerns, just as Florida is not the biggest or most influential state in the union. But national security has become the biggest test of character for anyone seeking the presidency. And what's clear after less than a month of general election-style campaigning is that both candidates intend to test each other's characters to the limit. You can turn up your nose at the attacks on the political battlefield. But they're a reasonable dry run for the real world challenges of the war on terror.