Trail Mix: Between the Numbers

Campaigns and candidates like to think they can escape the laws of physics. So both the Bush and Kerry campaigns claim with equal certainty they have gained momentum out of last week's TV debates. But as Isaac Newton correctly noted, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Bush and Kerry cannot both be rising in the polls, unless Ralph Nader has suddenly nosedived from his 1-point rating to, well, zero.

Bush's aides were almost giddy with delight at the improved performance of the president after last week's contest in St. Louis. But they may well have celebrated too early. As the latest batch of polls suggest, it's Kerry who is emerging from the debates as the clear winner. NEWSWEEK's poll after the first debate gave him a 40-point victory over Bush, with 61 percent of those who watched seeing Kerry as the clear winner and a mere 19 percent picking Bush as the victor. Sixteen percent called it a draw. Gallup's poll after the second debate gave the challenger a 15-point lead. Kerry's wins seem to grow over time; according to Gallup's snap poll immediately after the second debate, Kerry was ahead by just 2 points.

Even as the horserace numbers remain deadlocked, the underlying numbers suggest Kerry has turned around his ratings across the range of issues that voters care about. Before the debates, Kerry was losing to Bush on who could handle the economy by 9 points; today it's Kerry who has a 4-point lead. On Iraq, Kerry is still trailing Bush, but he has halved the president's lead from 14 to 7 points. And on the commander in chief's only remaining issue of strength--the war on terrorism--his lead has declined from 23 to 17 points.

Given the president's continued lead on terrorism, it's easy to understand why his campaign would want to focus so heavily on Kerry's comments to The New York Times magazine about the long-term prospects against terrorism. The flap hardly makes sense in terms of pre-debate strategy. After all, Wednesday's debate focuses solely on domestic issues and the campaigns traditionally devote their efforts to defining the debate in the days before a TV showdown.

But what about the flap itself? Kerry told the Times that he envisaged a time when terrorism was under control. "We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance," he said. "As a former law-enforcement person, I know we're never going to end prostitution. We're never going to end illegal gambling. But we're going to reduce it, organized crime, to a level where it isn't on the rise. It isn't threatening people's lives every day, and fundamentally, it's something that you continue to fight, but it's not threatening the fabric of your life."

Is there any real difference between Kerry's vision and the one outlined by Bush himself on the eve of the GOP convention? When NBC's Matt Lauer asked if we could win the war on terror, Bush said: "I don't think you can win it, but I think you can create conditions so that those who use terror as a tool are less acceptable in parts of the world, let's put it that way."

That didn't stop the Bush campaign taping a new TV ad attacking Kerry for his comments. ("How can Kerry protect us when he doesn't understand the threat?" the ad asked.) And it didn't stop Bush himself from attacking Kerry in Hobbs, N.M., this week. ("Our goal is not to reduce terror to some acceptable level of 'nuisance,' the president said. "Our goal is to defeat terror by staying on the offensive, destroying terrorist networks and spreading freedom and liberty around the world.") This kind of phony debate can only take place outside the real debates, on the campaign trail in front of partisan crowds.

In fact, both candidates are sharing rare moments of honesty with the voters in their assessment of the war against terrorism. There's no precedent for eradicating terrorist violence completely in any reasonable timeframe. Once insurgents and terrorists take hold, it can take generations for the violence to disappear--even when the first enemies withdraw. Just look at the experience in Northern Ireland or Algeria, where violent attacks continue beyond peace processes and evolve into bloody struggles of different kinds.

Yet the campaign distortions over terrorism are not new. It's the same pattern we saw after the first TV debate, when both candidates said they believed in pre-emptive military strikes. Kerry explained that he believed in pre-emptive strikes, but that "if and when you do it ... you have to do it in a way that passes the test, that passes the global test where your countrymen, your people understand fully why you're doing what you're doing and you can prove to the world that you did it for legitimate reasons." Kerry's so-called global test sounds remarkably familiar to this passage from a recent foreign policy document: "To support preemptive options, we will ... coordinate closely with allies to form a common assessment of the most dangerous threats." That document was President Bush's own national-security strategy from September 2002.

Such barbs make for effective campaign attacks, and it's not hard to see why they happen. But you have to wonder about the longer impact on the very policies the president is pursuing. Bush likes to condemn Kerry for sending out mixed messages to the world about war and terrorism. Yet he and his national-security team have been at pains to play down the importance of pre-emptive strikes since the war in Iraq. They have also been at pains to stress their own commitment to work closely with the international community, especially when it comes to securing and rebuilding Iraq.

The Bush campaign may find itself winning the war of the election and losing the peace. By campaigning so strongly against consulting with allies and so strongly for pre-emptive strikes, the president is effectively undoing his own diplomacy over the last year or more. If he wins re-election, Bush may well find himself rediscovering the laws of physics. For every action on the campaign trail, there's an equal and opposite reaction in the outside world.