Taking the Battle to the Enemy

The great Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, "War is the continuation of politics by other means." For the Bush campaign, politics is the continuation of war by other means.

President Bush stated his war doctrine at West Point in June 2002: "We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge." That's the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes: Hit the enemy before he hits you. That's exactly what the United States did in Iraq and what Bush is now doing in his re-election campaign.

His tactics help explain a surprising trend. The month of March delivered some pretty bad news for the Bush campaign: the controversy over Richard Clarke's charges that the Bush administration did not take the threat of terrorism seriously enough before 9/11; record-high gasoline prices; and continuing violence in Iraq. Nevertheless, Bush seems to have made gains over presumptive Democratic nominee John Kerry, going from 8 points behind in an early-March Gallup Poll to 4 points ahead in late March. A poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed Bush 9 points behind the senator from Massachusetts in mid-March but just 1 point behind in late March.

Rising gas prices are supposed to throw Bush, a Texan with ties to the oil industry, on the defensive. When gas prices last spiked, in March 2000, 39 percent of Americans complained that the prices were causing financial hardship, according to Gallup. Now, nearly half say gas prices are causing hardship. More than two-thirds of Americans call the gas price increases a major problem or a crisis. And many of those who feel that way support Kerry. A banner at Kerry rallies reads, "Low Gas Prices Fuel the Economy."

So the Bush campaign staged a pre-emptive strike by running a TV ad that calls attention to a statement Kerry made to The Boston Globe 10 years ago, when he referred to "my support for a 50-cent increase in the gas tax." The ad says, "People have wacky ideas like taxing gasoline more, so people drive less. That's John Kerry. He supported a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax. If Kerry's gas-tax increases were law, the average family would pay $657 more a year."

The Bush-Cheney '04 Web site has a Kerry gas-tax calculator (www.georgewbush.com/calculator). Let's say you log in and tell it that you want to drive from the state Capitol in Lansing, Mich., a swing state, to the state Capitol in Columbus, Ohio, another swing state. The calculator will give you a map with detailed driving directions, plus a calculation showing that Kerry's gas tax, if enacted, would cost you an additional $7.12 at the pump.

That's called taking the battle to the enemy. And it's working. In 18 swing states where the Bush campaign has been running ads, Kerry was 12 points ahead two months ago in the Gallup Poll. By late March, Bush had pulled 6 points ahead in those states. In states where there have been no Bush ads, the race two months ago was a virtual tie—Bush 48 percent, Kerry 47. And it remains Bush 48, Kerry 47. No ads, no change.

Senior officials in the Bush-Cheney campaign caution against giving too much credit to the anti-Kerry gasoline ad. For one thing, the Bush campaign started out in early March with a $10 million positive ad launch in those 18 swing states. "I can't see one ad driving up Kerry's negatives," a senior strategist said.

Nevertheless, two months ago, opinion of Kerry was 66 percent favorable in those 18 states, more favorable than in the rest of the country. But favorable opinion of Kerry has dropped sharply in the states that saw the Bush ads, to 51 percent—lower than in the rest of the country.

The Bush campaign claims the shift is the result of "the buzz." The Bush team's argument is that people changed their view of Kerry because of what they saw in news reports of the campaign, including coverage of Bush's visits to swing states such as Florida, where Bush said of Kerry: He's "been in Washington long enough to take both sides on just about every issue."

The Bush campaign doesn't deny helping create "the buzz." Bush-Cheney communications director Terry Holt said, "We have an extensive echo chamber of volunteers and local supporters who help us get our message out across all of the media."

The Bush campaign has an army of partisans, ready to do battle at a signal from Washington. That explains the intensely partisan response to Clarke's charges. The Gallup Poll shows the country sharply divided over Clarke's credibility, whether the Bush administration has paid enough attention to the Qaeda threat, and whether Iraq is part of the war on terrorism. In each case, at least 80 percent of Republicans are on one side of the issue and at least 70 percent of Democrats are on the other side.

Similarly, the image of Kerry as a tax-raiser appears to have sunk in: 58 percent of Americans polled by Gallup, including most people making less than $30,000 a year, think that Kerry would raise their taxes.

The Bush campaign is employing a strategy of pre-emptive strikes, backed up by legions of partisans, to throw Kerry on the defensive. Bush is running for re-election, quite literally, as the warrior president.