Character and the 2004 election
Peter Beinart’s TRB column in The New Republic says that the Bush administration is using foreign policy as a cover to press its character issue. President Bush talks a lot about the war on terrorism. And so many have assumed he wants to make this election a referendum on foreign policy. But I don’t think ...
Peter Beinart's TRB column in The New Republic says that the Bush administration is using foreign policy as a cover to press its character issue.
Peter Beinart’s TRB column in The New Republic says that the Bush administration is using foreign policy as a cover to press its character issue.
President Bush talks a lot about the war on terrorism. And so many have assumed he wants to make this election a referendum on foreign policy. But I don’t think that’s true. What he wants, I suspect, is to make this election a referendum on “character”–the same issue that helped him so much in 2000. It’s just that, after September 11, foreign policy is the easiest way to do that. In 2000, before international affairs was a top voter concern, the Bush campaign said Al Gore showed poor character by exaggerating his invention of the Internet and the prescription-drug costs for his dog. Today, the Bushies say John Kerry shows poor character by waffling on the war on terrorism. An actual debate about the wisdom of Bush’s foreign policy–particularly in Iraq–is precisely what his campaign’s character strategy is designed to prevent.
Read the whole thing. Beinart isn’t necessarily wrong here, but his analysis does omit one rather important point — John Kerry’s been just as guilty on this front. Anyone who saw the Democratic National Convention saw a pageant to Kerry’s Vietnam service — an attempt to signal to voters through his biography that he has the necessary character to evince strength and leadership in foreign policy. The interesting question to ask is why the perception of Bush’s strength of character has apparently held up better than Kerry’s. Groups on both sides have been firing at each other on character questions for most of the summer. Possible explanations: 1) Bush’s strength is not real but a polling artifact; 2) Bush is still riding the convention wave — but it’s ephemeral [C’mon, the GOP convention ended last month!!–ed. Go click on Will Saletan’s infamous “Bush is Toast” piece in Slate and check the date. He wrote that at the peak of Gore’s convention bounce]; 3) The character attacks against Kerry didn’t need the mainstream media, but the ones against Bush did. For conservatives, as Jonathan Last put it in the Weekly Standard: “An informal network–the new media–has arisen that has the power to push stories into the old media. The combination of talk radio, a publishing house, blogs, and Fox News has given conservatives a voice independent of the old media.” This would be a case study in support of Brian Anderson’s theory (and, with a slightly different normative perspective, Eric Alterman’s) about the growth of conservative influence in the mediasphere; In contrast, the attacks against Bush did need the mainstream media, which then proceeded to make some pretty big journalistic f***-ups; 4) Bush and his supporters were more aggressive than the Kerry camp in hitting back and hitting back fast; 5) “The old conventional wisdom is correct: reelection campaigns are fundamentally referendums on the incumbent.” 6) Kerry actually does have greater character issues than Bush; and finally… 7) John Kerry is just a God-awful campaigner until he’s threatened with near-certain defeat. Readers are invited to submit their own explanations and select among these. UPDATE: John Harwood has a great primer explaining the fluctuating poll numbers in today’s Wall Street Journal.
Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and co-host of the Space the Nation podcast. Twitter: @dandrezner
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